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Local NAMI in the trenches of  mental illness reform, awareness

With painting by one his daughters thsuffers from mental illness Jim McNish who age 81 still runs four divisions McNish

With a painting by one of his daughters that suffers from mental illness, Jim McNish, who at age 81 still runs four divisions of McNish Corp and NAMI Kane County South has spent many of his years fighting for the rights of the mentally ill. Photo taken Friday, January 24, 2013. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

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NAMI Kane County South provides educational programs and support groups for families of the mentally ill; including specific ones for parents of children with mental illness and for those in recovery. In addition, NAMI offers speakers and educational programs for schools, police officers and hospitals, as well as other professional and community groups.

For more information, go to; or call 630-896-6264.

Updated: March 1, 2013 6:33AM

Jim McNish — as hard as it is to believe, he’s in his early 80s — is too busy to think about age.

Running four divisions of McNish Corp., which manufacturers equipment for waste and water treatment systems, provides more than his share of “adrenalin rushes” at his Aurora-based office. And that says a lot for a man who spent many years playing rugby and mountain climbing.

McNish has faced plenty of peaks and valleys in other parts of his life as well, including one of the biggest challenges he’s encountered in those eight decades. As a founder and long-time leader of NAMI Kane South, the chapter for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill that covers DeKalb and Kendall counties, as well as the Aurora portion of Kane, he’s seen exciting progress in education and reform with issues that deal with mental disorders.

He’s also seen that progress erode.

“We know more than ever how to treat mental illness,” he says, his frustration evident. “Yet funding has deteriorated over the years. And as a result we have long lines of people waiting to get in to treatment centers, and our jails have become the largest caretakers of the mentally ill.”

While the vast majority of those struggling with mental illness are not violent, McNish hopes the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School will begin to drive the discussion in the right direction: not only making up for lost ground but gaining new inroads. President Obama’s focus to counter gun violence with early screening, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness, McNish can attest, is a far cry from the dark days that once surrounded brain disorders.

His own world came crashing in four decades ago, when McNish’s second of four daughters was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 15. It was “like a switch was thrown,” he recalls. One minute she was normal; the next, she was hearing voices. So little was known at that time, when he asked where this behavior came from, the doctor replied, “You don’t want to know.”

But McNish did want to know. Back then, bad parenting was blamed — and he simply wasn’t buying that. So he made it his mission to find answers, a quest that eventually lead to the founding of the Kane County NAMI in 1993, and significant changes here in the Fox Valley.

McNish was instrumental in pulling together the Kane County Mental Health Protocol, created in 2000 by state’s attorneys, public defenders, judges, police officers, caregivers, advocates and hospital personnel. He also teamed up with the late Norma Piazza, whose schizophrenic son shot and killed his father and brother in a public standoff with Aurora police in 1996, to help pass a 2007 state law making it easier for severely mentally ill patients to be involuntarily hospitalized.

He was a major force behind the Treatment Alternative Court for the mentally ill, rolled out in Kane County in 2008 to aid those snared in the legal system. And in 2010, he helped initiate the Crisis Intervention Training program that served as a prototype for police training across the Fox Valley.

Then, despite all the positives, “when they cut funding,” he says, “we ran into a headwind.”

But problem solving keeps Jim McNish young and energized. Through a strong volunteer group and leaders who refuse to give up, NAMI continues to grow its educational and support programs in this area. While medicine has made huge advances, society has yet to catch up — where a stigma remains and too many fall between the cracks.

“I realize that in 10 years we did not resolve some of these issues like I thought we would back then,” but he vows to keep trying.

After all, McNish adds, “there’s a new peak somewhere.”

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