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Mental Health Awareness Month: Adventures in Learning with NAMI Virginia's Miranda Schnoor


May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Miranda Schnoor works for NAMI, the National Alliance of Mental Illness. As NAMI Virginia’s Educational Support & HelpLine Coordinator, Miranda oversees the HelpLine, developing and leading a number of NAMI’s programs, and working directly with volunteers. In this conversation, we share resources and picture books that may help caregivers, families, and educators support children's mental health and social emotional learning.


She graduated from Shenandoah University with a BFA in Acting, then completed a service term with AmeriCorps, teaching literacy in the Hopewell public school system. Of all my guests (except Lynn Coles), I've known Miranda the longest (and I love her to the moon and back). Outside of NAMI, Miranda likes painting, reading, writing, and photography. Follow her photography account @miranda.with.a.camera. You can also follow her on LinkedIn.


Start by sharing your adventures in learning with us.


Miranda: So I would say my adventures in learning have taken me all over the place. I've always been a very avid reader and writer and very passionate about learning. And a few years ago, I graduated from my undergrad program, where I received my BFA in Acting. I loved going to school for theater, and I think I learned a lot. I was really passionate about it through my years there. And I was especially encouraged to continue my writing. And that's where I began really seriously writing, mostly plays and poetry at the time, and then COVID hit my junior year. And so I actually started nannying, and I moved to DC while continuing my studies virtually.


And then I finished up my college experience in person before moving to Richmond, Virginia. And in Richmond, I worked as a nanny for another year. And what interested me most during my time as a nanny was that element of education and childhood development. And so then I moved to serving a term with AmeriCorps, where I taught through the literacy lab. So I was teaching literacy with K-3 students, working one on one to improve their literacy skills. And I loved that. I loved teaching the kids. I loved the kids. And getting to make a difference like that was really gratifying. But it also made me realize that I would absolutely burn out if I became a teacher in a classroom setting. And I had taught previously, so this wasn't my first time teaching, and I had even written my own curriculum, but for much shorter periods of time versus like, a whole school year. But my time with AmeriCorps really taught me that the active work to make a positive change in my greater community was something that I was really passionate about. And so that's when I found NAMI Virginia.


What is NAMI?


Miranda: Well, so NAMI is, as you said, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I personally work for NAMI Virginia, which is the statewide branch of NAMI. NAMI serves at three different levels the national level, the statewide level, and then the local affiliates. So NAMI started out as a grassroots organization and spread nationwide.

So our mission is about promoting recovery and for individuals living with mental illness through education, outreach, and advocacy.

I'm currently serving as NAMI Virginia's Educational Support and Helpline Coordinator. It's a long title, but it means that I help our local affiliates implement a number of NAMI's educational programs. And then I am also in charge of NAMI Virginia's statewide helpline. So that's where I work to provide resources for the many people who reach out.


For quite a number of reasons, working with NAMI is a really great opportunity for me because it really hits close to home. I, like so many other Virginia and so many other people in the United States, across the world, live with a few mental illnesses. And I've worked really hard to be in the stable place of recovery that I am in now.

And because I've done that work to be in a stable place of recovery, I'm able to do this work where I reach out and I help people who are trying to find recovery, whether that's for themselves or for their loved ones. Especially because the mental health care system can be really difficult to navigate, especially if you're a person who's part of an historically marginalized community. And knowing that I can provide those resources that make a difference feels really monumental.

And I also do really think of the idea of judging my day by the number of seeds that I plant and not the harvest that I reap, because I'm not able to see all of the individuals that I speak with continue on in their lives after we connect. But I can hope that I was able to plant some seeds that eventually they themselves will be able to harvest.


Can you delineate the difference between mental illness and mental health and how they fit together?


Miranda: I've actually been working on a video for children talking about this.

So mental health is kind of the baseline. It's our emotions and our feelings and our thoughts and also our behaviors. It's where our brain is.

And so when we talk about mental health, we're often talking about promoting good mental health that involves things like self care, which, unfortunately, is not just bubble baths and face masks, as much as it would be great if it was. It is doing things like exercise and eating good meals and getting good sleep, doing the things that you need to do that might not be the easiest things. It can be things like going to therapy even if you don't have a diagnosed mental health condition, it's that work to take care of yourself.

And then when we talk about mental illness, we're talking about those mental health disorders that people live with. And so actually, one in five adults in the United States lives with a mental health disorder. And so the likelihood that if you yourself do not live with a mental health disorder, the likelihood that you know somebody that somebody that you love or are very close to is very, very high, that they might have or do have a mental health disorder.

What kind of resources might you share with someone who calls the NAMI helpline?


Miranda: There are so many resources out there if you know where to look, and many can be useful depending on your situation, your individual need. So it's kind of hard to just pinpoint a few. I mean, I of course working with NAMI would absolutely recommend looking at finding your local NAMI affiliate as a step. NAMI affiliates are going to offer educational programs kind of no matter who you are, whether you're a consumer of mental health care services, loved one of a person with mental illness, or if you want to learn how to advocate for people living with mental illnesses. So we even have a program that's meant for the clergy of any religions.


And NAMI also hosts support groups. There's a support group for individuals living with mental illnesses and one that is for families of individuals living with mental illnesses. So I kind of no matter what you're calling or emailing about, finding your local NAMI affiliate is something that I almost always suggest, but then there are a number of other resources that might be applicable no matter where you are in the country.


I am more familiar with Virginia's specific resources, but looking at, for example, SAMHSA - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, they have a treatment locator and a helpline. And they actually just launched a new website called FindSupport.gov which can help whether you are a person with a mental health disorder or a loved one of a person with a mental health disorder, it kind of gives you those guides on how to have those conversations and how to find support and how to find help. Because recovery can look different for everybody and it's a very individual thing. I think that's the most important thing to stress, or I think it's the most important thing to stress is that recovery from a mental health disorder is absolutely possible. And that there are all of these steps that you can take, which it does take a lot of bravery and courage, but taking that step really does help things get better.


I'd also recommend talking to or reaching out to your state NAMI, that's what I do. As well as finding your local community service board if you are looking for if you're looking for treatment in your area. Call 211 is also a pretty useful resource in terms of anything from housing to mental health services to finding food banks in your area, as is the website Help When You Need It, and they can also help you find legal services on top of some of the things that I just listed. And then of course, this is an important one as well, if you're in a crisis situation or you're with someone in a crisis situation, 988 is the number to call.


How does mental health connect to working with young children? What would you suggest as positive connections for families and educators based on the experiences you've had?


Miranda: I think it is really never too early to learn about mental health. Like we mentioned earlier, there are so many children who have been impacted by the pandemic in ways that they're not able to understand. I think it's really important for families and educators not just to have access to resources surrounding children's mental health, but to know where to find educational resources for their children as well.


I think that social emotional learning is a really great thing to have in schools because you're teaching children about their mental health. It's teaching about their emotions and their feelings, and that's really where it starts, having those conversations about mental health, about feelings, about what kind of feelings are typical, what kind of feelings might not be typical, when you need to reach out to a trusted adult in your life and what that looks like. I think for children to understand what a trusted adult may look like, whether that's like a parent, a grandparent, another family member, a teacher, a coach, knowing who those trusted adults are.


And I think it also starts with families modeling healthy emotional regulation and talking about their feelings and helping to devise coping strategies with their children when that's a developmentally appropriate thing to do. I do think that it's really an ongoing conversation that grown ups should be able to have with their children. When I say grown ups, I mean parents or educators or anything in between as those children grow and as it's developmentally appropriate.


I think helping younger children, just being able to be familiar with their emotions and being able to sit with them and knowing that their grownups are giving them a safe space to feel their emotions is a great thing. And showing them what that boundary setting is going to look like, and that boundaries are a thing that's firm because especially when they're young, they need to know the boundaries are firm because they're going to test them to see.

I think, as kids get older, that's where you need to also watch for those signs of mental health concerns. So I think that's very important. And actively having those conversations about mental health and creating that safe dialogue where they feel comfortable coming to you as an adult with their big feelings and their mental health concerns, I think showing that you care and that you're there to listen and provide them with that support consistently absolutely makes a difference.


Dr Diane: And I would say for grownups who might be afraid of having those conversations or feel awkward about them that just being present and being willing to listen is a huge part of that. That you don't have to have all the answers. You can reach out to someplace like NAMI for help and support to get the answers that you need as an adult to help support your teen, tween, and even adult children.


Miranda: Absolutely. And I have certainly talked to a number of people who are calling on behalf of their adult children. That's where I think as an adult who is taking care of children no matter what that looks like, that's where the self-education I think can be really important. Whether that be seeking out a NAMI program or even just like reading through a resource like FindSupport.gov, kind of having that understanding of how you can best be supportive.


I think also, and it's an uncomfortable thing to talk about, but I think grown ups should be understanding that the reality of how many young people die by suicide, those numbers you look and it's middle school now too. It's an issue that's impacting kids that are younger and younger, which is tragic, but a reality, and that's an especially scary topic I think, or it can be, but I think it's important for children to be able to talk about that directly, and so it's something that a grown up should be able to ask straight up. Mentioning the word suicide or asking if a child is having suicidal ideations is not something that's going to encourage them to have suicidal ideations if they're not. But it's something that is going to open up that conversation and to help them be honest about how they're feeling. So I think if you're creating this safe avenue with your children by talking about mental health concerns, that is one of the things that also does need to be asked. And it's where that education comes in, too, in terms of knowing the warning signs and knowing where you can go and how to get them to services that can help support them.


Dr Diane: That makes sense. And I was thinking also in terms of young people figuring out identity, figuring out who they are, that there's a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety around that issue, and certainly is not easier in today's climate. And so I think that the more you can provide that social emotional learning, that modeling, the opportunities for them to talk to a trusted adult, the better it is.


Miranda: Absolutely. And I think you want them to have as many trusted adults in their lives as they can have. I think it's not necessarily an insult if as a parent or as a guardian, you're not the person they go to, but it's making sure that they have other people, whether that be your friends, your siblings, teachers, just making sure that they have those people and knowing that it's not a personal affront if they're choosing not to go to you as a parent or guardian.


Dr Diane: Well, I always felt like it takes a village to raise your child and we need to be there for one another because there are moments where kids are going to need different things.


Miranda: Absolutely. And I think that's sometimes where as you're figuring out identity and all those messy, messy things that come with that, sometimes you need to have those other supports and maybe even that's therapy or a counselor again, it can look so different depending on who you are and what you need.


Dr Diane in her University of Virginia cap and gown and Miranda in a graduation cap at the UVA hooding ceremony.
Dr. Mom and Dr. Miranda (her graduate assistant) at the University of Virginia PhD hooding ceremony for Dr. Diane 20 years ago.

Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors -- Evolving Slowly


Dr Diane: Even just thinking about the last 20 years, your lifespan and a little bit of change, but thinking about just within that span of time. You know that I work to help connect diverse picture books to STEAM experiences for teachers. And one of the things I've come to realize is over the last 20 years, there's been a shift. And it's not perfect yet, but there's been a shift to more writings by authors of color, more windows and mirrors being held up for kids where they are able to see themselves in all their messy glory reflected in books, and are able to have windows to see other people's experiences as well. And for me, that's super important in whatever you're teaching because you don't know what kid is going to need that book.



When I started teaching preschool many, many years ago, I had a child with two moms and one of the moms had said when you're doing family stuff, my daughter feels left out because at the time it was pretty standard, you did Mom, Dad, it was all those kinds of families. And she's like, do you mind reading this book? And she put And Tango Makes Three into my hands. And I had not run across that book before, and I read it as part of our circle time, and the kids enjoyed it. It was a story of two penguin dads who adopted an egg and raised the penguin. It was based off of real life in the Central Park Zoo, but that was what we had at the time. There weren't these wonderful books to show families in different settings, to show LGBTQ families, to show divorced families, to show families where maybe the grandparent was raising the child. And so one of the things that I'm thrilled that we have today are all these different books that we can share. And I was, um I'm going to segue into books because that's part of what I do, and then we're going to come back to more of what you do. But I was thinking about books that I wish I had had when you were a kid. And so you can see behind me, I went and found a whole bunch of books today, and one of the ones I had found, it's A Family is a Family is a Family.


Miranda: I actually know that one!


Dr Diane: And in it they have families of all kinds, including foster families, which is really hard to find in children's picture books. And it's just a beautiful, beautiful book. My Shadow Is Purple. I don't know, have you seen that one?


Miranda: I think it's familiar. I think a couple of these are ones that I actually read when I was nannying, which is great.


Dr Diane: So My Shadow Is Purple talks about identity and a kid who sometimes feels blue and sometimes feels pink, but sometimes just feels purple and wants that purple identity. And it starts laying out fluidity for kids in a way that they get it, that you're not always pigeonholed into one stereotypical way of being.


Patchwork by Matt de la Pena and Corinna Luyken is a great example of you're not always what you think you are. I use this one, actually, when I'm working with teachers, because we talk about some are blue and we're born blue and you might end up loving the color brown or you're a dancer and you love dancing, but you might grow up to be a coder or a baller may be a poet. And you're not always this one thing that defines you. And so when I work with teachers, we talk about the things that they saw themselves being in the past, who they see themselves as now, and what they want in the future. And I try to model for them ways that they can have their own kids do it, even the littlest kids can take something like that and work with it.


There's Julian Is a Mermaid, which is a great one for kids who are questioning who they are and looking for acceptance. From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is a great one for parents who might be parenting a child who is different and doesn't fit what the typical mold is for your child. But I think it's a really good one for parents because it's unconditional love and it's accepting your child for who they are and supporting them in being who they are in all their unique glory.


There are so many books about you matter. There’s Christian Robinson’s You Matter. There’s All Because You Matter. There’s, you know, I'm looking at a bunch of them, The Day You Begin, there's I Am Enough. Trudy Ludwig, who I had on the podcast last year, is a really good one for social emotional learning. She wrote about anxiety when she wrote Brave Every Day.


Miranda: You shared that one with me. That was a great one.


Dr Diane: It’s a child and she struggles with her own anxiety, and it's only by helping somebody else out who's even more anxious than she is that she's able to find some confidence to try some things. The Humpty Dumpty book After the Fall is another really good one for anxiety and how do you pick yourself up after you've taken a fall, after you've literally had a mental bump or a mental illness? How do you get the help you need?


Miranda: I love that one for that.


Dr Diane: In the Trudy Ludwig ones, she's got grief. Her Calling the Wind is a beautiful book for dealing with those big emotions of grief. And how do you cope with the loss of a loved one?


Milo Imagines The World is another one I love because it's about not making assumptions about other people, and it's two kids who are going to visit their mothers who are incarcerated, and sort of the judgments that the main character, Milo, has been making on the subway ride of everybody all day. And then this kid totally flips his assumptions, and it causes him to go back and rethink the things he was thinking about everybody else all day and to rethink his own situation.


So there are so many beautiful books out there. I hope that teachers are using these books because they're great for language arts, they're great for science and STEM, but they're also really good for addressing those big emotional issues.




Note: I am a bookshop.org affiliate. If you click through and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission. Please use these book lists to support your local bookstores and libraries.


Dr Diane: I know from talking to preschool teachers, the kids who are coming in right now are really struggling to deal with some of those big emotions. And some of that, again, is the COVID effect.


Miranda: And I think it's kind of that double edged sword where you want to be able to teach them to name their emotions and to kind of understand what those feelings are. But then it is also understanding that behavior is communication, and so knowing what to look for in behaviors when a child might not be able to name their big emotions yet or that it's something that they're just not able to do. It's also, I think, understanding those behaviors.


What kind of books influenced you as a kid?

Miranda: Well, I would say it's hard to think of a kind of book that didn't influence me as a kid, really. I mean, you know I have always been a very avid reader. I think I read some big books at a pretty young age. I loved fantasy, and I loved fiction as, I guess, a kind of form of escapism. I loved some of the picture books, and I really do think that picture books have absolutely diversified since I was a kid. I would say most of the protagonists and the picture books that I read as a kid primarily were white. Not all of them, but I would say primarily. So I think that is a really cool switch that I noticed as a nanny and teaching literacy as well is the number of books that I could give to my kids that would either reflect who they were and provide those windows and mirrors or would help them create that more empathetic worldview. I think that's a great change that I've gotten to see kind of firsthand.


Dr Diane: Right. Because when you were younger, it was animals primarily. It was Biscuit and Olivia and you identified with those.


Miranda: I still love Olivia. Olivia is still great. I stand by the Olivia book.


Dr Diane: Oh, I agree. I'm just grateful I never wound up with paint all over my walls a la Jackson Pollock, so thank you for that.


Miranda: No, I'm sure you just had, like, the Martha Graham part of it and wanting to be queen and all of that.


Dr Diane: That's okay. But you're right. I do think that books have diversified a great deal since you were a child, and I can certainly remember books that you adopted the protagonist and sort of put on that armor of making them a part of who you were.


Miranda: Absolutely. I mean that's part of the reason why I wasn't allowed to read Eloise or June B. Jones because we didn't want to have those characters in the household.


Dr Diane: Yeah, I like to pride myself on reading banned books. But I will say, as your mother, I might have hidden a couple.


Miranda: Absolutely, I remember it well. I know for you too, that I think Anne of Green Gables was a big one for you, was that adoption of that character in that formative period of finding a worldview and finding how the world works.

And so I think books were absolutely my biggest frame of reference for figuring out how the world works and how I see the world. And I think that's something that I'm still doing, but now I also have some lived experience, some continued lifelong learning that is also impacting the way that I see the world and move through it.

What are you planning for Mental Health Month with NAMI Virginia?


Miranda: So I'm in charge of the NAMI Virginia blog, which I love. I love being able to do that writing. And so this month we have actually shared a couple of different stories from individuals in mental health recovery and so talking about their lived experiences and what led them to getting that help and finding that support that they needed. And these are actually two young people who are part of our Youth Move board, which is our youth organization. And so those stories, I think, are both interesting and relevant, especially to this conversation, actually, in terms of thinking about young people being able to express their voices.


I know NAMI National, our nationwide organization, is also doing quite a bit.

And I think the big message that we are trying to make sure that people understand is that you are enough. Wherever you are at in your recovery journey or in your journey as a supporter, as a loved one, you are enough where you are right now.

Dr Diane: That's a perfect message. And it actually ties into one of the books behind me, which strangely enough is called I Am Enough..


Miranda: It's true, you are enough.


Dr Diane: And I think that's a beautiful message.


What brings you joy right now?


Two people in front of Bridal Falls at Dupont State Park.
Miranda and Gus hiking in North Carolina.

Miranda: I would say the springtime always brings me joy. Just the sun and the end of that seasonal depression. So just getting that time out in the sun brings so much joy.


I’d say I love hanging out with my partner, Gus, and my little black cat, Wesley. I think that having just a home that I love and that I love being in brings me so much joy. I've also been painting and reading and I've been doing some more photography recently. I think having those hobbies is something that brings me great joy, and I think also making sure that I'm connecting with others. I personally am part of a support group program, and that's something that does absolutely bring me a lot of joy, something where I've been seeing these people for the last year and a half. And it's lovely to see how they're doing and to know that they matter to me and I matter to them.


Something I talked about in therapy recently, actually, is just finding what those markers of thriving are and understanding that thriving right now in general is not a baseline of happiness because it's not realistic, but finding that baseline of being content. And that for me, thriving is not just being happy — again, unfortunately, it would be really cool — but it is doing that active work of healing and feeling my feelings and taking care of myself and making sure that I am connecting with others.


What gives you hope?

Miranda: I think the fact that we can have these conversations about mental health and about mental illness brings me hope because it means that the stigma surrounding mental illness is becoming smaller. It brings me hope that more people will be able to receive the help they need and to take those steps of asking for support or being able to provide support. And then I also think that even seeing all of the issues that exist in both the educational and the mental health care systems, knowing that the next generations of kids are growing up in a world where mental health is talked about more, does bring me hope. I think that there is a lot of division, especially in the United States these days, but I hope that having these conversations means that someday we're going to have more empathetic and supportive adults in the world. And I think that is a hopeful idea.


Resources Shared By Miranda:


You can listen to the full podcast episode here.



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