HOULTON, Maine — A local couple who worked diligently as advocates for the mentally ill were recently honored with inclusion in the National Alliance on Mental Illness Hall of Fame.
Phil and the late Marie Bernaiche were acknowledged for their years of dedication and providing support to people in Aroostook County, along with the work they did in forming the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine.
Initially, the Bernaiches would leave Houlton around 4:30 a.m. and drive to Augusta to attend meetings, said Christine Canty Brooks, director of peer and family support for NAMI in Augusta.
Families with mentally ill members all organized from a little grassroots organization.
“It was families all over the country who got together at their kitchen tables and decided to seek services and treatment for their loved ones with mental illness,” said Carol Carothers, executive director of NAMI Maine. “Services were awful and limited.”
Often family members were blamed for a loved one’s condition.
“Back in those days, these families were just shunned and carried the burden of taking care of their loved ones,” said Carothers. If the family member couldn’t be cared for at home, they were institutionalized “so a person went to Bangor Mental Health Institute or Augusta Mental Health Institute — staying there for a really long time.”
The Bernaiches joined with Mal and Barbara Wilson of Waterville and others to begin change in the mental illness situation in Maine.
“They did it by getting together,” said Carothers. “They started going to the State House and being strong advocates and speaking out.”
Carothers who worked within the Legislature witnessed the drive of these families for change.
“They decided it was going to be better,” she said. “NAMI families would come and speak out. They became, to some extent, the voice of reason. In those days, there was no consumer movement, so people with mental illness did not speak out and the provider world was doing what it did.”
Mike Fitzpatrick, former executive director of NAMI Maine and current executive director of NAMI National, said, “Phil and Marie Bernaiche were great advocates to get treatment to people when they were in need. They accepted no excuses from bureaucrats and politicians.”
The Bernaiches were among the founding members of NAMI Maine and instrumental in developing NAMI in the Houlton area.
“It was at a time when the stigma surrounding mental illness made if difficult for families to come forward and talk about their experiences,” Fitzpatrick said. “They understand why getting support to families is a significant factor in the recovery of individuals with mental illness. They provided support for others and the necessary leadership to help create a better mental health system in Aroostook County.”
“They were a team,” said Carothers. “In most cases, a family unit would run the support group. Families bonded together and organized a voice. Now there is a NAMI in every state and a national NAMI. New NAMI families are carrying on the work.”
Carothers, who has been with NAMI Maine for 12 years, has seen support leaders come and go, but the Bernaiches were always there.
“The Bernaiches didn’t retire,” she said. “Phil is still there.”
Bernaiche, who lost his wife in December of 2010, promised her he would “keep on the good work” that they started together in 1984.
“Phil is still taking calls, day or night, from families who just need help,” said Carothers. “Give [Phil and Marie] credit for changing the world because the climate of mental health treatment is just way different from when they started fighting for better services.”
The Bernaiches were honored with their selection into the NAMI Hall of Fame for their longevity of service and for being founders of NAMI Maine.
Bernaiche, who is in his 80s, served on the NAMI Maine board of directors for many years.
“His passion and commitment were essential at the time to the growth of NAMI in Maine,” said Fitzpatrick.