Mental Health Champions: How Karen Ranus and NAMI Central Texas Are Supporting People Living With Mental Illness and Their Families

Authority Magazine - Yitzi Weiner

Asa part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Karen Ranus.

Karen Ranus is the Executive Director of the Central Texas affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI Central Texas). She sits on the Children’s Mental Health Plan Leadership Team, the Board of the Mayor’s Health and Fitness Council, the Travis County Behavioral Health Advisory Committee, and The Children’s Partnership. She has been featured as a guest columnist on mental health issues in the Austin American-Statesman, Austin MD Magazine, and The Daily Texan and is a frequent speaker in the community on mental health topics. She is the mother of college-age daughters who live with mental health issues and often shares her story in the community to help dispel myths and start positive mental health conversations.

Asa Mexican-American, I grew up in the barrio in a coastal Texas town where no one talked about mental health. I was married with a family of my own before realizing that my mother had been living with an undiagnosed and untreated mental illness her entire life. Her unaddressed mental health issues were the leading cause of our unstable family life and poverty. Fortunately, she instilled in me a love of learning, and I was the first person in my family to graduate from a 4-year university.

NAMI Central Texas is one of 650 NAMI affiliates in the United States. Foundationally, we provide no-cost classes and support groups for people living with mental illness and their families. But equally important is the work we are doing to transform the way our community talks about and addresses mental health. There are still a significant number of misconceptions about mental health — especially its causes and impact. Too many people still fail to recognize mental health as the HEALTH issue it is. Much of our additional work is focused on providing education to the larger community — schools, workplaces, faith communities, law enforcement — so that everyone has a better understanding of mental health and the value of early intervention and treatment.

Ten years ago, I almost lost my 18-year-old daughter to suicide. That crisis completely overwhelmed our family. We felt isolated, and I felt like I had failed as a mom. Fortunately, I found NAMI and took one of their free classes for family members. I learned so much and met other families navigating the same kind of challenges. I no longer felt alone, overwhelmed, and isolated. That experience helped us move along the road to recovery with much more confidence. When the opportunity to lead this organization came up, I couldn’t resist taking a leap of faith. I knew there were so many other families like mine, and I wanted to be able to help them!

I don’t know that there was one “trigger” but rather that I was at a perfect point in my life for taking this leap of faith. It didn’t happen immediately after I took the class. About two years had gone by, so my daughter was well and thriving, and I had plenty of time to get comfortable with sharing our family’s story. It also helped that I felt an immense amount of support from my family. They were quick to encourage and cheer me on (and they still do). My daughter has been a huge fan of this work, and our family’s experience has been a constant source of the deep-seated passion and commitment I have to this work. It has been quite a journey and a labor of love.

I think the most interesting stories are the ones of people we’ve helped along the way. Because mental health issues are complex, families often come to us in despair. Honestly, they have so many needs, and they are often frustrated by a flawed system of care in which they can’t access the level of care their loved one needs to achieve recovery. Sometimes it can feel like you’re not doing much to make their lives better when your work is focused on merely offering education, resources, and support. But, so often, families will call or email me, and they’ll remind me of how transformative the experience can be. Never underestimate the power of having a deeper understanding of what you’re navigating, coupled with the realization that you’re not alone. Those stories drive the work and keep us focused on the mission.

I’ve been so lucky to have some amazing women along the way who have been a source of wisdom, guidance, affirmation, and challenge (when I needed it). In particular, one woman had previously served on the Board of the organization and was very involved in the community, especially in the area of mental health. Along the way, as the organization was growing, she was there to offer advice and feedback, especially when there were challenges. It can be hard being the head of the organization if you don’t have a safe space to be vulnerable when you’re struggling or have concerns. Likewise, she’s one of my biggest cheerleaders. She’s always noticing my work and is quick to recognize my successes when I don’t.

As I mentioned in a previous response, I think the biggest reason for stigma is that we don’t recognize mental health as the health issue it is. There is still a great deal of shame connected to mental illness. We don’t talk openly, honestly, and positively about mental health. I still remember sharing our family’s story at a public event, and someone from our church was in the audience. She came to me afterward and thanked me for sharing, but then she said, “I’ve been sitting behind your family all these years in the church, and you just seem like such a perfect family.” For me, the implication was that we no longer fit the “perfect family” model. While I know she didn’t intend it, there was some shaming in her response. My great hope is that in telling our family’s story and encouraging others to do the same, we can help change the way people think about and talk about mental health. I feel confident that someday we’ll talk about depression and bipolar disorder in the same way we talk about diabetes and asthma.

The other reason for the stigma is that we know so little about our very complex brain. There are no definitive diagnostic tools for mental illnesses, so it’s easy for people to dismiss them as “not real.” Additionally, mental health issues, because they impact the brain, manifest themselves in thoughts, actions, and behavior. So, they look like “behavioral” issues instead of health issues. I don’t like the use of “behavioral health” as I think it reinforces this notion that people need to “behave” (e.g., think happy thoughts, not feel sorry for themselves, stop being lazy, be responsible). So, education, storytelling, and continued research can help us diminish this stigma in the future.

Individuals: get educated and learn the facts about mental health and share what you learn with other people.
Society: recognize mental health as a health issue and support policies and systemic change that ensures people get the level of treatment they need when they need it
Government: continue to invest in research and programs that help people move into recovery

  • : movement, breathing, and meditation all rolled into one. Committing to this practice has been so helpful to me in the midst of so much uncertainty and worry about the pandemic, political polarization, and social unrest. I’ve been doing “Yoga with Adriene” videos on YouTube and love starting my day with her!
  • : I have a “gratitude jar” with little slips of paper that I jot down things for which I’m grateful. When everything seems bleak, it’s a reminder of all the good things happening in my life.
  •  There is nothing like being out in nature to reset my brain and help me feel at peace. Sometimes I don’t have time to get out on a trail, and so I take a walk in my neighborhood. Working from home, it’s important to take time to go outside and breathe fresh air and let your face feel the sun.
  •  In the last few years, I’ve come to value the power of controlled breathing. Practicing deep, controlled breathing means that it’s an easy tool to pull out of your “tool kit” when you’re stressed and overwhelmed.
  •  Most Americans don’t sleep enough, and I have been guilty of this, but sleep is essential to our mental wellness. My sweet spot is 7 hours, and my goal is to come close to that most nights. It doesn’t always happen but setting this as an intention ensures it’s more likely to happen.
  •  Life is hard, and it’s easy to get stuck in the collective grief, anxiety, and stress in which we are all immersed. I make sure to watch comedies, check in with friends who make me laugh, give myself permission to be silly, and try not to take everything so seriously.

I can’t think of any particular things I can point to here. My reading, listening, and resources are pretty eclectic.

Honestly, I think most people are fundamentally good and want to make a positive impact. What keeps people from doing more is they are often just afraid, afraid that what they do won’t matter or make a difference, afraid they don’t have anything to offer. I always advise people to “do what you love and love what you do.” Don’t get engaged with something because it’s the right thing to do (or what your friends are doing). Do something that you love, something that energizes you. It’s when we are doing what we love that we are our best version of ourselves. We radiate goodness and don’t even know it.

@KarenATXMH on Twitter