Ann Eldridge

ann eldridgeBoard Member, 1970s to 2018
Founder, NAMI Santa Barbara Chapter

Ann began her long-term commitment to providing for the mental health of others at Northhampton, Massachusetts State Mental Hospital on her way to becoming a registered nurse at New England Deaconness Hospital in Boston. This was at a time, the 1950s, when major mental illness was thought to be caused by problems in the family environment and mothers were especially held to blame. This idea was still prominent in the mental health profession when her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 17, in 1977. At that time Ann and her family resided in Santa Barbara and that was the beginning of her journey in advocacy for family mental health. She found families in Santa Barbara had few resources for information or treatment other than the Santa Barbara Mental Health Association (as it was known at the time). The director of the Mental Health Association, Nancy Johnson encouraged Ann and other local families to form support groups. In addition, Nancy recruited Ann to be a Mental Health Association board member.

For the next 10 years or so the Mental Health Association facilitated and supported the organizational efforts of the local families and dedicated space for the group. The Mental Health Association was one of the few mental health agencies to develop a relationship with NAMI; the two organizations do not typically work in such a collaborative manner and this partnership in Santa Barbara was unique and effective. Ann and John Van Aken (also on the Mental Health Association Aboard) worked tirelessly to advocate for and create an Affiliate Chapter of NAMI California in Southern Santa Barbara County. John and Ann made many trips to Sacramento in their efforts to promote legislation for funding mental health services statewide. In 1982 NAMI California recognized and formalized its relationship with the Southern Santa Barbara NAMI Chapter affiliate.

Ann says “Our successes would have been impossible without the work and dedication of John Van Aken, Jan Winter, George Kaufman, Ann Greaney, Ann Marie Cameron, Nancy Johnson, Shirl Casier.”

Ann had the striking combination of passion and skill, given her career in nursing and mental health training, combined with the personal experience of having a child impacted by mental illness. “All of these organizations were just forming and I knew I knew I needed to be involved” she recalled.

“At that time, our organizations were the only ones addressing non-clinical issues related to mental health,” Ann noted. “Families were afraid to talk about mental illness because there was such a tremendous stigma.” There was no place for many of these people to go and Ann credits Myrna McMillan, director of Santa Barbara County ADMH Department for supporting NAMI’s programs.

Ann is delighted that NAMI’s Family to Family Classes, developed in 1977 by NAMI National, are ongoing decades later. In fact, the classes are at capacity and Ann said she’s thrilled that the stigma has been reduced and the topic has risen to a national conversation. She credits George Kaufman, Anne Greaney, Jan Winter and so many others who have sustained and expanded the program.

The other thing that Ann is incredibly proud of is encouraging Annmarie Cameron to seek employment at the Mental Health Association. It was at a state conference that Ann and John Van Aken got acquainted with Annmarie who impressed her as “a talented, up-and-coming young woman.”

“I could not have imagined at that point in time that Annmarie would accept the role and stay for three decades,” said Ann. “I’m amazed at what has been accomplished over the last thirty years, and I’m so thankful for what Annmarie and her team are still doing.”

Ann said the organization has enriched her personal life. She’s made dear friends and learned a lot. She is grateful for the fact that people are now talking about mental illness and that it’s finally being recognized as a major issue with funding allocations supporting research and care.

“It’s a tremendous, welcome change,” said Ann. “When I was trained as a nurse forty years ago, people with mental illness were shipped off to asylums. Now these same people can live independently, with medication and supportive care. “Much of that success is a direct result of the alliance between NAMI and the Mental Wellness Center.”