If Karen Ranus’ 17-year-old daughter had been in a car accident or diagnosed with cancer or suffered virtually any other illness, there would have been a Facebook post and casseroles and well-wishes to follow. But seven years ago, as the family was reeling from her daughter’s close call with suicide and a stay in a psychiatric hospital, there was nothing except silence and shame.
“Like many health crises, people are often sent home before they are really recovered,” says Karen. “But unlike other health issues, we went home with my daughter both not yet recovered and beating ourselves up that we did something wrong – that we were to blame for her condition.”
Karen admits to being unprepared and uneducated about mental illness at the time. The entire family was traumatized. But she and her husband immersed themselves into a new world of doing everything possible to help their daughter get better. And they did so confiding in as few people as possible.
“No one told me there was a book I needed to read or a support group I should join,” recalls Karen. “So I started Googling and found NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). There was a chapter in Austin and a class called Family-to-Family for caregivers of individuals living with mental illness.
Karen says it was that peer-to-peer environment that transformed her family, her outlook and ultimately, her mission in life.
“We finally lifted the veil of shame we were living under,” she says. “We were doing the right things to help my daughter recover but the best healing doesn’t happen in the dark – it happens in the light of community, support and education. The realization that we were not alone gave us hope and comfort.”
Karen took a leap of faith soon after and became the executive director of NAMI Austin. She now uses her passion and empathy to create a community where people are talking differently about mental health. She does not want any family to feel shame or isolation like hers did.
“This is life and it’s not our fault,” says Karen. “I know there are so many families like mine. Now I get to go workplaces, schools and work with partners in law enforcement and religious organizations to dispel myths, provide toolkits and arm people with information and hope.”
Karen is a big believer in partnerships and is excited to be joined two of NAMI’s closest allies, Travis County Sherriff Sally Hernandez and local parish leader Father Charlie Garza, at What’s the Fix? on May 17. The trio will share the innovative and effective ways there are improving mental health in the Austin community.
Karen never imagined her three daughters would someday call her the “Queen of Mental Health.” Girl Scout leader, Sunday School teacher, PTA mom, community volunteer, nonprofit professional were all titles that suited her best until she almost lost her oldest daughter to suicide seven years ago.
Karen was struggling with her own feelings of blame and guilt when she took a class with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that helped the entire family see mental illness in a whole new light. As she started sharing their experience with others, she discovered how many families were also living with mental illness –isolated, shamed and often without support.In 2013, Karen took a leap of faith and now spends her days as a mental health advocate serving as NAMI Austin’s first Executive Director. She has made it a priority to educate and partner with schools, workplaces, faith communities, neighborhoods and justice systems to change the way Austin, Texas addresses mental health.