By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

Core to the mission of NAMI is breaking down stigma and negative stereotypes associated with mental illness. When Chauntelle Lieske, Executive Director of NAMI Spokane, initiated a search for office space that would better serve the individuals and families she supports, she ran headlong into that stigma. Ms. Lieske started off the relocation process by identifying a potential space that fit her budget, then her realtor would contact the realtor representing the potential new landlord. The realtor for the landlord would be open to discussing a possible rental until they asked what NAMI stood for. When the response came back as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the landlord’s realtor would say something like “that’s not a good fit for our building” and would terminate the conversation.

Ms. Lieske said, “I believe that some landlords were opposed to renting to Spokane NAMI because the only picture they have in their minds of mental illness is our houseless friends who are actively struggling with mental illness. The landlords attach to that image and then attach to the fear. They don’t see what I see which is that anyone can live with a mental health condition. People who have mental health conditions can hold jobs, have families and go to school.”

According to Ms. Lieske, chiseling away at the stigma and stereotypes around mental illness is at the heart of NAMI Spokane and her journey to find new space graphically illustrated that there is much more work to be done. One way NAMI Spokane works towards this goal of breaking down stigma and stereotypes is through the In Our Own Voice program. These 40- 60- or 90-minute presentations can be held for any interested group in the community and provide a personal perspective of mental illness, as presenters with lived experience talk openly about what it’s like to live with a mental health condition. These trained presenters humanize the misunderstood, highly stigmatized topic of mental illness by showing that it’s possible—and common—to live well with a mental health condition. The Ending the Silence program is aimed at young people, school staff and parents.  Other NAMI Spokane education and support programs for those living with mental conditions and their families also contribute to the goal of reduced stigmas.

Even though she faced blocks, Ms. Lieske persevered with her search for a rental because the space she had was not meeting the needs of the population she served. The space was very tiny and would not accommodate the large education and support groups she organized. Every month her staff had to search to find space for their groups and there was no consistency. In addition, there was no space to support small groups. The space was also dark and didn’t project the positive energy she wanted to associate with her organization. Parking was also a problem.

Ms. Lieske eventually found a beautiful new space for NAMI Spokane. The space is bright with lots of natural sunlight which promotes healing. The new space has enough room for the groups she supports and there is plenty of available parking.  There is also room for growth. NAMI Spokane is about to launch a strategic planning process that will look at how to expand its programming to better serve the Spokane region.

NAMI Spokane could not have made the move to improved space without the help of the Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation. NAMI Spokane received a grant from the foundation to cover rent for three years. The foundation’s contribution supports its mission that includes improving health and well-being in Washington and Oregon states. At the end of three years, Ms. Leiske believes she will have the support in place to pay the rent with funds from NAMI Spokane.

Ms. Lieske said that the doors to the new office are open. One of the values of NAMI Spokane is building community. The new office is a safe place where people who live with mental conditions and their families can be in a space together with others going through similar situations. It is also home to the NAMI Spokane Resource Navigator and the Program Coordinator. Ms. Lieske extends a warm welcome for community members to stop by the new office at 152 South Jefferson Street, Suite 100.

Chauntelle Lieske is the Executive Director of NAMI Spokane. She has been in that role for two years. Before working with those living with mental health conditions she provided support to survivors of domestic and sexual violence for over 15 years. She has a passion for serving her community.

Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.