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Advocate for Those with Disabilities Now Advocates for Mental Health
Brittany Shipley is the new executive director of NAMI-WRV.
Saturday, January 16, 2021


Brittany Shipley has been running six adolescent support groups via Google hangout to help students at Wood River High School and other schools navigate their way through the pandemic emotionally.

She has the students do an emotional check-in, naming one positive thing that happened, along with one struggle and how they got through it.

Now, Shipley has responsibility for helping to nurture the mental wellness of even more people in the valley. She’s been named the new executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of the Wood River Valley (NAMI-WRV).

She will succeed Christina Cernansky who left to take a job working with the military on suicide prevention training in Boise. Cernansky had been with NAMI-WRV for five years—three of those years as executive director.

“Brittany has been exceptional in her ability to take the helm, keep the ship moving smoothly through the waters of change” said Page Klune, president of the NAMI-WRV board. “We are thrilled with Brittany in this position and very excited about NAMI’s future supporting the needs of the Wood River Valley.”

The daughter of two engineers, Shipley grew up living in the places where her parents were managing projects—in the Tri-Cities area, Nashville, Nevada and California.

Her family moved to the Wood River Valley as she was starting high school and it was at Wood River High School that she plugged into the high school’s teaching academy.

“My interest was in special education. I really wanted to help individuals with disabilities,” she said. “My thinking in high school was that I would be a better educator if I learned how to help individuals who learn differently.”

Having two children of her own with disabilities, Shipley spent some time working with the Blaine County School District. There she realized she wanted to help children like hers but that she couldn’t help them the way she wanted simply by being a special education teacher.

“I needed to be a social worker to advocate for effective change,” said Shipley, whose children are now 14 and 5 years old.

She got an associate degree at College of Southern Idaho, then headed to Boise State University where she got a social work degree with an emphasis on advocacy and policy work. She also graduated from  the Partners in Policymaking program.

Every winter she heads to Boise to testify before the legislature about children’s mental health and caregivers. She’s also advocated on the behalf of Medicaid, mental health coverage for first responders and disability rights.

Two years ago, while interning with Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary, she started volunteering with NAMI-WRV. After six months, Cernansky hired her to facilitate the pilot Bluebird program.

In the two years since, the adolescent mental health support program has expanded from one school to seven. It’s grown from the original five students who started out with the program in 2017 to more than a hundred.

“While talk therapy is effective with adults, it’s been shown that adolescents do their best sharing while doing hands-on activities,” she said. “Every week, we’re playing games, doing art projects, baking cookies. And every week they come back because they feel safe and included in a judgment-free zone.”

The program not only expanded to a summer program but just began partnering with Swiftsure Ranch Therapeutic Equestrian Center. The kids learn the anatomy of a horse, they learn to take care of the horses and they ride them, as well.

“We teach them about horses, ask them, ‘Where do you think horses feel anxiety?’ and ‘Where do you feel anxiety?’ We blindfold one another and work on communication as we navigate through an obstacle course. It’s so magical,” said Shipley.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given NAMI the opportunity to reach different populations virtually. Even when in-person groups are allowed again, the organization could very well offer virtual resources for those who may not be comfortable meeting face to face, Shipley said.

Shipley says she wants to learn what the community needs and wants in her new role, as well as how NAMI can help the community.

“How can we collaborate with other groups like the 5B Suicide Prevention Alliance?” she asked “How can we all work together for the same cause?”

Shipley says NAMI’s working on some new programs, including one providing wallet cards for first responders that include agencies, phone numbers and specific individuals they can talk to when dealing with someone in crisis.

NAMI has just hired new staff to provide support for individuals in the jails. The organization is also starting an art class, which Shipley says is a great way for clients to connect to one another. And NAMI is certifying those who work with the Spanish family support group.

Shipley plans to continue to work with the Bluebirds, leaning heavily on the Trauma Resiliency Model which helps students identify biological responses to stress so they can employ skills like grounding to get back into the zone.

“When I feel my heart race, my hands shake, I realize I need to take a break and take a walk to ground myself,” she said. “I spend five days a week with students and nothing gives me more pleasure than to see their faces glow, their growth. We’re setting these students up for a lifetime of success with support and friends and tools to navigate life in a way many never imagined.”

Shipley said she’s excited to be able to work with the community and the NAMI staff and board: “We have an amazing chapter and an amazing board, and there’s a lot of things we can do.”

To learn more about NAMI-WRV, visit



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