A ‘profound, beautiful’ alliance: NAMI and Hoag work together to help mental health patients and families in the emergency department

June 01, 2019

As the name suggests, the Emergency Department is where people go when they are experiencing an emergency. But sometimes that emergency has little to do with a physical ailment.

“I’ve seen patients in the fetal position, crying, saying they feel unsafe. I’ve had patients who [hospital staff] thought were going to need restraints. I have seen patients who have not eaten anything or taken their medications,” said Aisha Khan, M.P.H.

As the rate of homelessness and mental health issues rise in Orange County, Hoag’s Newport Beach Emergency Department has found itself triaging patients who need far more than clinical attention. In August 2018, the hospital’s Community Benefit Program teamed up with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to create a first-of-its kind program that stations non-clinical “Family Mentors,” like Khan, bedside in the Emergency Department. Dubbed “NAMI Connects,” this unique and unexpected alliance has been transformative for patients, families and hospital staff.

“The Emergency Department is dealing with life and death situations. The NAMI peers play a vital role in creating a bridge between patients and the hospital setting, providing support and kindness in a way that calms them and lets them know Hoag cares about them,” said Christopher Childress, nursing director. “Working with NAMI allows our staff to focus on patients’ physical needs while their mental health needs are also being attended to.”


Hoag’s Community Benefit Program teamed up with the National Alliance on
Mental Illness to create a first-of-its-kind program, NAMI Connects. From left,
the NAMI team includes: Kent Bamberger, Aisha Khan, Amy Durham and Anthony Do.

Initially, Hoag and NAMI had anticipated the Family Mentors would be placed in the hospital lobby to work with family members of people coming in for non-physical crises. These family members would be connected to community resources and peer counselors who could help them find the mental health help their loved ones would need.

“But what has come to light is that so many mental health patients come alone. They have no family. They might be homeless, or they have alienated their families and are checking themselves in,” said Amy Durham, development manager for NAMI Orange County. “So, we began working directly with the patients, helping them to be more successful when they get out of the hospital and reduce the rate of repeat hospitalizations.”

Placing non-clinical mentors in patient areas is a bit unusual, and at first the emergency staff wasn’t entirely clear what to expect. But everyone quickly began to understand where the work of a physician, social worker or community navigator ends — and where a Family Mentor’s work begins.

“What we do is listen,” said Khan, who has struggled with depression and anxiety, and often uses her story to relate to patients and earn their trust. “I tell them, ‘I understand you’re scared.’ Often, just speaking to someone like me, who understands what they are going through, is all it takes to get them to open up.”

Once the conversation starts, the Family Mentors connect patients to resources such as the Melinda Hoag Smith Center for Healthy Living across the street from the Emergency Department. And through a comprehensive follow-through component, Khan and her fellow Family Mentors, Anthony Do and Kent Bamberger, work to ensure that patients make use of the resources available to them.

“There are so many great services available to the community, and a lot of what we hear is, ‘I didn’t know these things existed,’” Do said. “There are resources literally across the street from the Emergency Department, and patients — and sometimes hospital staff — didn’t know they existed.”

Many of these resources have been life-changing for patients and their families, feedback that the team finds deeply rewarding.

“Success for us is that the discharged patient is engaging in their own healing process,” Khan said. “We’ve already started to see that.”

“If there are two words that I would usevto describe this program, they would be ‘profound’ and ‘beautiful.’ We’re very honored to do this work.”

Mental health is a critical part of a person’s overall well-being and, if untreated, can be a major barrier to living a safe and productive life. Through a total community benefit investment of $40,000 in 2018, the NAMI Connects program guides vulnerable individuals and families to much-needed resources, serving a unique and vital need in the communities surrounding Newport Beach.