Jane Ojeda gripped the phone as the concerned caller replayed the recorded message. “I am calling to say goodbye”. Ojeda recognized her son Tomas’ voice. “Today, at 6 o’clock, I am going to hang myself.”

Years before, Tomas Ojeda had been a “happy, carefree, lighthearted young man” for whom his parents had many high aspirations, his mom says, but sometime during his freshman year at a Missouri college, where he belonged to both a fraternity and the football team, he fell into a deep depression.

“He left school. We tried anti-depressants, taking him to a psychiatrist, but he only got worse,” Jane Ojeda says.

Tomas did not follow through with his suicide threat, but his disturbing phone call led to the first of multiple hospitalizations. He had been hearing voices for a long time, it turned out, but until the first 10-day hospital stay, he had been too ashamed to admit it.

Doctors initially diagnosed him with schizophrenia and treated him with medication. The next several years brought a chaotic stream of new symptoms, and varying diagnoses, doctors and medications.

Jane Ojeda nearly cracked from the pressure, she says, but support from a group based in Lake Highlands — the Dallas affiliate of the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) — saved her family. In fact, to Ojeda’s surprise, several other Lake Highlands families dealing with similar issues also were finding help at NAMI.

“A counselor had told my husband and me about a support group [here in Lake Highlands], but they didn’t have another meeting for more than a month,” Ojeda says.

“I was in a meltdown, suffering from depression, anxiety … there came a day when I just couldn’t stop crying. Tomas had an appointment that day, and he practically carried me into the office — he told the [psychiatrist], ‘She needs this session more than me.’”

Jane Ojeda hung on until the meeting, NAMI’s “Family-to-Family”, a free course for families and friends of individuals with serious mental illness, which she describes as “guilt-busting”.

“The first thing they told us was, ‘It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. Oh, and also, it’s not your fault.’ It’s not that I didn’t raise him right or drink too much coffee when I was pregnant, you know? And it’s not his fault, either — he can’t just snap out of it. We got a huge amount of solid information and help coming to grips with [Tomas’ mental illness].”

That was about eight years ago. Because of how exponentially the group has grown since then, Ojeda says, a parent in her shoes wouldn’t need to wait weeks to find support.

A voluntary self-help organization, NAMI addresses the needs of people with mental illness and their families through references, support, education and advocacy, and offers regular group meetings and classes throughout the city.

Through NAMI, Jane Ojeda immediately learned that her son’s problems were more common than she knew. As soon as she arrived at her first Family-to-Family group, she spotted one of her neighbors.

“She told me about her son, who is dealing with schizophrenia, and I just thought, ‘Wow’. And soon after, another neighbor from down our street joined,” she says.

Understanding the frequency with which mental illness occurs helps to overcome the stigma. The statistics are quite surprising, NAMI Dallas executive director Matt Roberts says.

“A little more than 1 percent of the adult population lives with schizophrenia. That is a big number,” he says.

Roberts refers to a NAMI handout showing stats including: “One in four adults experience a mental health disorder in a given year; one in 17 lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder (National Institute of Health); fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).”

Lake Highlands parents Sandy and Morris Gregory also spent years and untold amounts of money trying to find help for their son, Jeff, who began abusing drugs in junior high school. It was after he went through treatment and began living clean and sober that symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia cropped up.

“We thought he was using drugs again,” she says. But it turned out that, all those years, the drugs had been masking a mental illness.

The Gregorys took their son, in his early 30s at the time, to a treatment center in Connecticut. It was there that a counselor told them about NAMI.

The person with the mental illness obviously needs help, but family members need help, too.

“They told us we needed support, and we did,” Sandy Gregory says. “We were not trained in how to deal with this. We went all the way to Connecticut to try to get Jeff help, but we found NAMI close to home, and it has changed our lives.”

Roberts says NAMI exists to support the family as well as the “consumer” — the term used to describe the person being treated for mental illness.

“It is not in a family’s DNA to understand how to live with chronic illness,” Roberts says. “Our goal is to help people with serious mental illness, such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder, and their loved ones, improve their lives.”

Jane Ojeda says that family members can receive help even when the mentally ill person isn’t ready to get help.

“I realize how lucky I am to have a son who is [in recovery],” she says. “Some of the other group members have loved ones in prison or on the streets because they aren’t willing to admit the illness.”

Not only is Tomas Ojeda working to recover today, he also is helping others — he co-facilitates one of the consumer support groups, speaks publicly about mental health issues, and serves on NAMI’s Board Members At-Large.

“He was once so ashamed,” his mom says, “but today he’ll tell anyone about what he’s been through. He’s the one out there helping others now.”

That’s the way it works, says Gregory, who regularly volunteers at NAMI these days.

“When we came in, we saw how other families wanted to help us. They knew what we were going through. Now, we have a chance to help. To me, that’s a blessing, a ministry. I have a strong faith that God uses us through our experiences to help others.”

Join NAMI Dallas May 1 at Fair Park for the 3-mile NAMI Walk to fight stigma, build awareness, and raise funds. To register, or to learn more about NAMI, visit namidallas.org.