by Rebecca Antsis
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental illness is defined as “a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood.” Although NAMI’s definition is accurate, it falls short of describing the frightening reality experienced by the one-in-four American families that are afflicted with mental illness.
Nicole Stolarski and Tina Oplinger of Bucks County are all too familiar with what mental illness can do to a family’s life. In 2010, Stolarski’s husband was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. After a year of hospital visits, psychiatric evaluations and prescription experiments, his condition eventually improved. Although her husband’s symptoms stabilized, Stolarski felt as if she and her family were quarantined, and empathic witnesses were lacking.
In that same year, a close friend of Oplinger’s—one who had long withstood a depression that everyone thought was “under control”—committed suicide without warning. The mental health support crises that Oplinger and Stolarski saw, coupled with the non-existence of a safe space for families struggling with it, catalyzed them into what they refer to as “put up or shut up” mode. In proper grassroots fashion, they looked to utilize and mobilize their immediate community so that no one should go through the experience of mental illness alone. In 2011, with ongoing familial support, 4 The M.I.N.D.S. (Mental Illness No Longer Defines Someone) was birthed.
4 The M.I.N.D.S.’ core gift to the community is a weekly support group for family, friends and individuals that suffer from mental illness. Since 2011, this free support group has been held every Monday, rain or shine, in Doylestown’s Aldie Medical Arts Building. It offers a haven of understanding for many people that otherwise have no recourse while in the healing process. Stolarski speaks to the consistency and community of the group when she says she has “regulars that have been coming since the beginning”—an impressive feat considering they have just wrapped up their five-year anniversary with an annual 5k fundraiser.
In addition to Monday’s group, 4 The M.I.N.D.S. holds events and group outings, and it sponsors guest speakers throughout the year that offer alternative coping mechanisms. Using funds raised through past initiatives, it has brought in diverse presenters. Past events have featured yoga teachers promoting somatic awareness, a trans-cranial practitioner offering an alternative to medication and a whole foods nutritionist explaining the relationship between food and mood.
In spite of offers of expansion and in conjunction with being awarded 501(c)(3) status (thanks to the diligent efforts of Stolarski’s sister Charlene), 4 The M.I.N.D.S. stays close to its roots. The entirely peer-based support group remains their central contribution. Despite being full-time moms with full-time jobs, Stolarski and Oplinger never miss a meeting. “We are there every Monday,” Stolarski stresses, “as a space for those that have mental illness and for their families.”
The co-founders express being continually inspired and humbled by the people that come to the group. “Honestly, I’m honored just to be in the same room as these people,” Stolarski says. She and Oplinger speak often of the strength of the attendees, noting what inspiring “fighters” they are. Missing from their conversation is any mention of their own fortitude—through 4 The M.I.N.D.S., this pair of friends have transformed their personal trauma and become community leaders who are lifting up others and creating a much-needed space for connection and healing.
In Stolarski’s own words, “A closed mouth won’t change anything.”
Rebecca Antsis is a Pennsylvania-based writer, multimedia performer and editorial associate for Natural Awakenings BuxMont. Connect at RebeccaAntsis@gmail.com.