Jarvis leads local fight on mental illness

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The Colorado Springs affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has been a part of the Colorado Springs community for 27 years. Current Executive Director Lori Jarvis has led the organization, which assists the families of those living with mental illness and those with mental illnesses themselves, since 2011. With a full-time staff of two, six part-timers, a small army of volunteers and a board of directors, the former Californian has grown the nonprofit’s budget more than 10 times during her tenure.

And because of her own story, she has dedicated much of her time to removing the stigma associated with mental illness.   

“There’s a history of mental illness in my family,” she said. “But it was not part of the daily conversations around our house. We knew it was at work. I’d heard stories about a great-grandmother, who would disappear for days at a time. They would call them her ‘spells.’”

This week, Jarvis spoke with the Business Journal about finding her calling in her second career.

How did you get to Colorado?

I’m a Northern Californian. That’s where I was raised. I came out here in ’99 after I’d spent 30 years in the corporate world. I spent 16 years at Pacific Gas and Electric, which is based in San Francisco and is the largest investor-owned utility in the country. I was also the director of communications for a philanthropic foundation for three years in Northern California and then went to Silicon Valley, which is how I ended up out here. I came here with Quantum [Corp.] as the manager of community relations and communications. Public affairs and communications is my background.

We’re you seeking a job in Colorado?

I wasn’t at all. I was with Quantum in Silicon Valley and they encouraged me to look at a position out here. I was like, ‘I have no interest in going to Colorado.’ Here I am.

Fill in that gap.

There was a gentleman at a manufacturing operation out here and I had never been in a manufacturing environment. … I thought this was a box to check in the experience portfolio. I came out here to work with him. He was general manager of the organization. My role was manager of government and community relations. The CEO of Quantum told me to look out here and that I might be surprised. I came with my two young children at the time and thought there’s a quality-of-life consideration here. Silicon Valley was booming. It was crazy. The part of northern California that I’m from was more rural. This felt more comfortable and relaxed — not as frenetic as Silicon Valley.

Were you skeptical about the Springs?

I thought it would be a very short gig. All my family and professional connections were in California. After the tech bust in 2002, I left Quantum by choice. For a couple years I did consulting in the Bay Area. I commuted to and from San Francisco from the Springs. … I had the opportunity to work with Janus Capital Group in Denver; I had done consulting work with them. I did some consulting work with Janus from 2005 to 2008. After that, I took some time off. Thought I’d go back to school and become the English teacher I’d never been. I knew it was time for a career change. I’d been in the corporate world 30 years. It was a fabulous opportunity and I learned lots — lots of different industries, opportunities and roles. But I was looking for some work that was a little more soul satisfying.

How did you get to NAMI?

I have an English degree and taught writing while I was in school and thought it was an unfulfilled passion to work with younger people. I come by teaching naturally and had been managing people for a long time, teaching in a mentoring role.

What I wanted to do was teach history and English. I went back to school for the history piece. I was taking classes at [Pikes Peak Community College] to see if it was what I really wanted to do. But in 2010, I took one of NAMI’s programs — the Family-to-Family program. We have a family member with a serious mental illness and she wasn’t doing well at the time. I had a friend in California who was a therapist who said I needed to find NAMI. I took the class and after going through the course, seeing the difference it made in my understanding [of?] the illness, learning how to interact with our loved one who had the illness, learning how to take care of ourselves and the coping skills you need when you live with someone with a serious mental illness — as a family member and caretaker, it made a huge difference. It was qualitative.

Given my background in marketing and communications, I thought, ‘Why is this organization so hard to find?’ That was about the same time the board was looking at hiring an executive director. They felt they had gone as far as they could as an all-volunteer organization.

Had you looked for professional help before coming to NAMI?

We’d gone through a lot of providers. We were constantly seeking the best providers we could find. There had been a string of hospitalizations and therapists and psychiatrists and always paying out-of-pocket for some of those services. I think we completely underestimated the value of peer support. NAMI’s strength is: It brings people with lived experience together — whether you’ve lived mental illness or have a family member who does.

We know one in five people will experience a psychiatric illness at some point in their life. We know people, for the most part, can recover but they need treatment and they need support. That’s where NAMI comes in — the support.

Talk about your services.

Our flagship program is Family-to-Family. We introduced that in 1999. It’s a 12-week class for family members who have a loved one with mental illness. We offer that at least five times a year and it fills to capacity every time we offer it. It’s about educating people on mental illness. You come away with a good sense of the difference between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders. You learn about severe depression. The premise for a lot of work we do is that these are biological brain disorders. They’re not personality flaws. It’s not the result of bad parenting. In some cases there’s trauma that can trigger the onset of mental illness but even in those cases there’s usually a predisposition biologically. This is about brain chemistry. We spend a lot of time helping people understand it isn’t anybody’s fault. 

We also have peer-to-peer programs for those who live with mental illness and a shorter program, Basics, for parents of younger children. Or many times it’s grandparents caring for grandchildren. Basics takes them through the onset of behavioral health issues. The goal is to get to people early. The earlier we can identify and diagnose and treat, the better the prognosis. Ideally, you keep someone from having that first psychotic episode. If they have an illness where there’s the potential for psychosis, you want to avoid having that happen. There’s a toll that takes on the brain and it takes a long time to recover.

Any fees to users?

All programs are free. They cost us but we don’t charge the community. We’ve had the incredibly good fortune of being funded primarily by individual donors and small foundations. About 80 percent of our funding comes from individual donors. The other 20 to 30 percent comes from grants. We got our first government grant from El Paso Public Health Department in June for $14,000.

What’s your annual budget?

Right around $600,000 now. It’s grown more than tenfold. When I started we were at about $45,000. Fundraising is how I spend a lot of my time. I’ve really treated this operation like a startup. I had to go out and find money to develop this concept and execute a business plan. My business background — I really brought that to this environment.

We have about 3,500 individual donors in our database and about 95 percent are local. We have about 400 donors who give more than $500 a year. We’re a small organization, so $500 is significant.

We’re getting people to give more as we do more. I think we had three programs when I started and we have 12 now.

How did you increase your budget so much?

First, I have a fabulous board. We’ve built a board of business leaders who know how to run a business. They’ve been extremely supportive and they don’t micromanage. They’re there when I need them and as well as being wonderful contributors and financial supporters, they also just let me run the organization. I’ve gotten to be as entrepreneurial as I’ve needed to be in this position.

Then there’s the relationship piece. When people have an experience with NAMI, it’s pretty life-changing.

Are perceptions of mental illness changing?

Yes. Part of this is the timing of the issues. People are talking about mental health more and we’ve had some tough things happen in this county when it comes to youth and teen suicides. NAMI is way upstream from suicide. We’re about education and prevention. When you don’t have education and prevention, suicide numbers go up. Fortunately in the last year or two, we’re seeing those numbers go down. … General awareness has gone up and stigma has dissipated. This has worked to our advantage.

How many people do you reach?

We touch about 3,500 a year. That’s a pretty reliable number. That’s people who go through our programs, but we’re also staffed 9-to-5 everyday with a resource and referral line. We have a lot of people who call here when they hit an impasse in getting the services they need.

So 3,500 have taken a class or attended a support group or needed help finding a clinician.

Another thing we’re really focused on is reaching minority communities. We haven’t had a great track record of reaching underrepresented communities. We’re trying harder to reach the African-American and Hispanic communities. We have a program we introduced called No More Secrets which is a symposium organized by primarily black clinicians in town. We’re in our second year of offering the symposium and had about 100 people attended last year. That’s happening again in October.

If you’re white, middle-class and educated, you’ll probably find NAMI — but we haven’t had very good penetration in minority communities. There’s also more cultural stigma in those communities.

Talk about the impact of mental health on the workplace.

When you look at 20 percent of the population being affected, that’s one in five of us that will face challenges. Right now we have a tight labor market and there are a lot of very talented people with a mental illness. Psychiatric disabilities are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and a lot of people, with some accommodations in the workplace, can do very, very well. These aren’t illnesses that are a life sentence. You can learn with medication and treatment and peer support you can live very successfully with these illnesses. But I think we have a long way to go in the workplace. That’s kind of the last frontier for stigma — people feeling comfortable saying to their manager that they live with severe depression or bipolar disorder and this is what I need to be successful. That would be a goal of mine before I leave this role — if we can feel like, in the workplace, we can have those kinds of conversations.

One example: Psychiatric medications people take are usually taken in the evening, so it’s harder to get going in the morning when you have those medications on board. Often if you can just adjust work hours a little, they can be successful.

Do you have programs for the workplace?

Mental Health First Aid is a fabulous eight-hour introduction to mental illness and we can tailor it for the workplace. [Cobham Semiconductor Solutions] is one we’re working with and one of the first businesses to step up on mental health. The military has been doing it. But we’d love to see more business leaders embrace Mental Health First Aid. … If you do nothing else, [enroll] your leadership team — people in managerial and supervisory roles. The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office is sending everyone from the office through Mental Health First Aid. We’re working with Colorado Springs Police Department to be sure sworn officers go through Mental Health First Aid. Sixty percent of their calls have a mental health component. But mental health issues can be as common in any workplace.

We are trying to make inroads [with the business community]. We have been working with Community Health Partnership on getting to hairstylists, barbers and baristas through their employers. We’ve talked with Veda Salon about taking their stylists through Mental Health First Aid training. We feel like these are people on the front lines — in high-contact situations with people where they’re divulging and the [employee] can say, ‘Have you thought about this resource?’ or ‘Did you know there’s a crisis line staffed 24/7?’ or ‘Did you know NAMI offers education and support programs?’

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just the role that work plays for people who live with mental illness. If you’ve been waylaid by mental illness and have been out of the workplace for a period of time, what work can mean to recovery can be huge. We have people who’ve stepped out of the workplace for a while and it’s really hard to reenter. Some of these are very skilled, talented and educated people. I think the tight labor market may work to their advantage in that people need to take some risks on people. We do it here all the time and sometimes we’re pleasantly blown away by what we see. People are very trainable and coachable if you’re willing to make that investment.

Editor’s note: The web version of this story has been corrected. Jarvis misspoke and it is Cobham Semiconductor Solutions participating in the Mental Health First Aid, not Cherwell Software.