Rhonda Ryan had never heard of National Alliance on Mental Illness-St. Tammany until her addiction to prescription painkillers got her in trouble with the law.
The Pearl River resident had been abusing OxyContin and other opioids for years when she was sentenced to five years’ probation for a drug charge. While she was wrapped up in the court system, she continued to abuse the pills. She wound up in a halfway house in Baton Rouge but was tossed out after testing “dirty” following 28 days of rehab.
Ryan wound up again in Judge Peter Garcia’s courtroom, and he ordered her to the NAMI-St. Tammany facility on the grounds of Safe Haven just east of Mandeville.
Ryan eventually moved into one of 12 apartments NAMI operates onsite, and it was there, after several decades of abuse, that she finally found her footing.
With the assistance of NAMI-St. Tammany and the 22nd Judicial District Behavioral Health Court, Ryan got clean. She worked with a sponsor who helped her through some difficult times, and she completed Drug Court. She also earned her high school equivalency diploma, and she got a job.
Ryan, now 47, said she finally saw a clear path to a steady future.
“People saw something in me, that I could be someone,” she said recently. “When I graduated, Judge Garcia was there; (NAMI Day Center Director) Tom Rowan was there, and a peer specialist, too. Tears rolled down. I never had happiness before I got sober."
Ryan still lives in the NAMI apartment, which offers her independent living, though staff is on the grounds 24/7 to provide assistance should she need it. She works at NAMI’s Closet, also on the Safe Haven grounds, where she can dispense goods to the needy as well as some of the hard-earned wisdom she’s picked up along her sometimes difficult journey in life.
She directed one homeless man, addicted to crack, to a nearby Oxford House where he could get clean. She also helped an abused woman find services she needed to restart her life.
That’s the key, Ryan said: “Wanting to get better.”
For years, she didn’t actively seek a better path for herself and she suffered. Choosing to live drug-free, and working through the inevitable struggles an addict faces in the process, has changed her life, she said.
“It feels so good inside to help someone," she said. "It’s made me want to get more involved with NAMI. I’m going for my peer support training in September. ... I’m a very determined person now.”
NAMI-St. Tammany has that sort of impact on the many people the group touches, in both mental and behavioral health fields.
The group’s peer-run day center at Safe Haven provides free nonclinical support resources, recovery-oriented programs, groups and activities in a safe and accepting environment. Since it opened in June, 94 clients have been served at the day center.
NAMI also has trained more than 60 first responders from 14 agencies to have a deeper understanding of mental health issues. Fifteen peer support specialists serve eight courts and eight area facilities to provide the sort of support and guidance necessary in the time of need.
Stacy Gilmore, development and communications director for NAMI-St. Tammany, said that if stories such as Ryan’s seem distant to St. Tammany Parish residents, they should reconsider.
An estimated 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. lives with or has experienced mental illness at some time, and with 250,000 people in St. Tammany, that’s an estimated 48,000. The parish continues to lead the state in suicides annually, and in 2018 alone, NAMI-St. Tammany received more than 16,000 requests for resources.
All of this is taking place as local, state and federal authorities have dwindling budgets to help finance such organizations. That’s only one reason why events like the NAMIWalks on Saturday, May 18, is increasingly important. The group hopes to raise at least $110,000 to finance programs like those that helped Ryan turn her life around.
“Besides my kids, NAMI is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said.