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Ijeoma Onyema, PharmD
Clinical Pharmacist-Psychiatry
Northwestern Memorial Hospital
Chicago, IL

Arti Phatak, Pharm.D., BCPS, is a Clinical Psychiatric Pharmacist with an established practice at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. She practices in both inpatient and outpatient behavioral health settings, regularly provides learning experiences for pharmacy and medicine residents within her institution, and serves as an on-site preceptor for students from several schools of pharmacy throughout the Chicagoland area. She also serves as a Family-to-Family educational program facilitator and ambassador through the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) 1-2 times a month.

Like many behavioral health professionals, Arti was familiar with NAMI as an organization prior to volunteering with them. Given her firsthand experiences with relatives and severe mental illness, she had a long-standing desire to get involved at a community level and wanted to be of more help for others outside of her clinical practice. Her personal experiences with mental illness within her family gave her an exclusive perspective to know what other families are going through and led to her reaching out to her local NAMI chapter to share her story. After meeting with representatives from the organization, she was offered her current volunteer role.

Arti’s role as a NAMI Family-to-Family facilitator entails leading groups for family members who have a loved one with mental illness. “Family members are vital to the recovery and care of those with mental illness, but often they are also in need of support, education, and an outlet to be able to best care for their loved ones,” she notes. Her Family-to-Family group support groups run for two hours and are open to anyone in the community, serving as a safe and therapeutic space for attendees to allow themselves to feel vulnerable and share their successes and struggles of caring for someone with a mental illness. Through this position, she serves as a liaison for medication information, a moderator for healthy discussion, and most importantly, a reminder to others that they are not alone. Arti has also been able to provide medication education seminars within the community and high school settings to help debunk myths related to psychiatric medications and provide evidence-based information on current available treatments. 

What Arti finds to be most rewarding about her volunteer work through NAMI is that although she can’t necessarily fix or cure anyone's loved ones, she can provide members of the community with the comfort of knowing they are not alone in what they or their loved one is going through. “It's a small and steady way to continue to dismantle a stigma that affects so many,” she says. “Looking back at my own experience I often wished I had known or wondered if these types of services existed. I've reflected on how much it would've helped me emotionally to process what was happening in my home.”

One particular example of the impact Arti has had on her community was with one of her group attendees who quickly became a regular attendee at her monthly sessions. Arti notes that this attendee was able to slowly share the cultural and socio-economic disparities in addition to the struggles experienced with setting boundaries with a family member. Over half a year, Arti was able to connect with this person and give tips on how to navigate the complexities of the mental health system. The attendee later stated the importance of taking care of oneself mentally first in order to face the ongoing challenges with a loved one “In hearing everyone's story across the room you were able to find a small piece of connection to your own and it was validating,” she added. . Arti also received an overwhelming response from attendees to continue the group sessions virtually when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns went into effect. She notes that this was the first time she felt how important the pharmacist’s role was and it was exactly what she was seeking to do for someone else.

When it comes to other CPNP members motivated to volunteer, Arti encourages pharmacists to consider that their expertise can be invaluable and that a little bit of time goes a long way for one person, whether or not they have a personal tie to mental illness. “Our communities need more education on medications and mental health awareness in general,” she says. “You'll be surprised how little mental health is spoken about outside of our workplace walls. Sharing your wealth of knowledge is not only important to dismantle the stigma of mental illness but to showcase our profession and dismantle the stereotype that we only fill outpatient prescriptions in retail stores.”

For more information on how you can volunteer with NAMI, please visit nami.org/Get-Involved or Current Opportunities for Involvement postings through the CPNP Volunteer list-serve.

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