Two things are undeniably true about mental illnesses. The first, as Lee Smith says, is that they are treatable. The second, unfortunately, is that–at least in the United States–we do not treat them in the same way we treat physical illnesses. People with private health insurance find that different rules apply, with treatments for mental illness either sharply limited or excluded. Public psychiatric hospitals and mental health agencies are chronically underfunded. Folks in the field say our largest mental health agencies are our prisons.

The good news is, nonprofit and volunteer groups have stepped into the breach, both by advocating for better laws and by supporting patients and their families as they address their illness.

Advocacy means trying to get Congress to enact a mental health parity law, which would require insurers to treat all illnesses alike, and to convince state lawmakers to increase funding for the public system.

It also means getting out into the community to help us understand that mental illness results from a brain disorder and is not some character flaw or alien trait. People with mental illness say their biggest problem is the stigma that the rest of us attach to their disease.

The North Carolina chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI-NC), for example, sends volunteers into schools to talk with teachers about the problems their students have experienced and how school personnel can respond to them most effectively. The Mental Health Association in North Carolina (MHA-NC), similarly, runs outreach programs to Latino groups and–in Wake and Durham counties–to African-American churches.

Support work centers on programs like Family-to-Family, which is offered by NAMI’s Wake County chapter. The program is designed for the parents, siblings, spouses and adult children of persons with major psychiatric disabilities–schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression. It’s led, as the name implies, by family members who’ve experienced the issues themselves and have been trained to teach about them.

Peer programs bring people with mental illnesses themselves together as friends and fellow travelers in the health-care system. MHA’s Orange County chapter, for example, has three support groups–for anxiety disorders, depression and bipolar diseases, and schizophrenia–which meet twice monthly at its office in Carrboro. A new program, called Peer Bridgers, is designed to help people who’ve been living in a state hospital, a rest home or some other “institutionalized setting,” and who are ready to live more independently, to make the “bridge” back.

Clubhouses, meanwhile, bring mental health consumers together on a frequent–even daily–basis to share meals, work, recreation and friendship in a setting that belongs to them. Threshold, in Durham, and Club Nova, in Carrboro, are two examples, and Wake NAMI has just opened its first clubhouse, called Derek’s Renaissance, in Knightdale.

The area’s NAMI and MHA chapters differ in composition and emphasis, but both include mental health consumers, their family members, people who work in the field, and doctors and service providers. They’re the best way into the fragmented realm of public and private mental health services for people seeking help or guidance.

NAMI-North Carolina: 309 W. Millbrook Road, Raleigh, 27609, , 788-0801. Local helpline: 929-7822.

NAMI-Wake County: P.O. Box 12562, Raleigh, 27605, , 828-1725 (Stephanie Gilmore).

NAMI-Orange County: , 929-7822.

MHA-North Carolina: 3820 Bland Road, Raleigh, 27609, , 981-0740.

MHA-Orange County: P.O. Box 2253, Chapel Hill, 27515, , 942-8083.

MHA-Durham County: 960-6815.

N.C. School Psychology Association: .

Public mental health programs are offered through county agencies–in the Triangle, the Wake Department of Social Services, the Durham Center, and OPC (Orange-Person-Chatham) Area Program, respectively. They have their own advocacy and support group, called the N.C. Council of Community Programs. It’s located at 505 Oberlin Road, Raleigh, 327-1500.