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Maggie DeCosse (MPP, '23) chats with alum Jessie Walthall

I had the opportunity to speak with Jessie Walthall, Senior Manager of Research with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as part of the Schroeder Center for Health Policy’s Career Chats Program.

Jessie WalthallJessie received her undergraduate degree in Public Policy at William & Mary in 2016 and pursued work at the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) upon graduation. She eventually landed an internship at NAMI, a grassroots mental health organization that provides advocacy, education, support, and public awareness to improve the lives of individuals with mental illness and their families. In this position, she provided logistical support for their advocacy related national convention in Washington, DC. She helped coordinate advocates who came from across the country to speak to their senators and congressional representatives about mental health. Jessie then worked at Rappahannock United Way and the Treatment Advocacy Center before returning to NAMI full time for a position on their communications team. Although she started on the communications team, she realized that she preferred using her research and data analysis experience to support NAMI’s mission.

Jessie’s coursework in the William & Mary Public Policy program provided a strong foundation for her current position as Senior Manager of Research at NAMI. In this role, she primarily conducts survey research that involves gathering data from state and local NAMI offices to help the National office better support their work. NAMI is uniquely positioned to understand the current needs of individuals with mental illness and their families due to the experiences of NAMI leaders and members in communities across the country. Jessie also works closely with the NAMI Policy team, ensuring that statistics and data are used to effectively advocate for better laws, regulations, and funding for mental health. Jessie and I talked briefly about the rollout of the 988 hotline, which her colleagues, Stephanie Pasternak and Jodi Kwarciany, recently spoke to the William & Mary community about in a presentation hosted by the Schroeder Center.

Crisis intervention, justice diversion, and community-level support are the biggest public policy issues that NAMI deals with on a regular basis. Jessie highlighted the breakdown that exists between people who need help and how they access that help.  For individuals with mental health issues, there are challenges to getting help prior to potential involvement with the criminal justice system. According to Jessie, NAMI’s focus on justice diversion (“help not handcuffs”) is to make sure those facing a mental health crisis have access to community-level resources, which  can be lacking in some geographic areas, particularly in rural communities.

Jessie performs quantitative and qualitative analysis in her day-to-day work. Most of her surveys involve 100-200 participants, and she uses the skills she acquired through her Quantitative Methods course at William & Mary to help analyze that data. Her William & Mary coursework also helps her understand complex research articles related to mental health and to translate them to audiences who are less familiar with quantitative methods. Making sure information is clear, accessible, and easy to understand is a vital part of NAMI’s work. She finds that the most important skill contributing to her success is the ability to think critically and being able to draw conclusions from small and large datasets. Jessie spends most of her time doing independent work at the request of other departments, and she particularly enjoys, and is passionate about, survey work. She noted that survey work allows researchers to dive deeper into data collection  to produce reports that are accessible to the public and policymakers.   

In five to ten years, Jessie sees herself on the research team at NAMI with more experience and connections to fellow researchers in the mental health policy field. She would like to work on larger scale surveys and research projects that require a higher level of quantitative analysis, and she would like to co-author peer-reviewed journal articles on mental health. What draws her to NAMI is her passion for mental health and her belief that no one who needs help should ever have to go without it. She is also grateful for the kind, committed, and justice-oriented people with whom she works and the genuine respect for work-life balance that NAMI provides.