Learn how to live with mental illness from those who’ve been there

Nancy Brickman
Nancy Brickman

I was newly divorced, recently relocated and starting a new job when I first became aware that I needed help.

At that point, I had no idea what was happening to my adult child, but I felt we could no longer communicate and were both spinning out of control. A trusted colleague suggested I join NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental llness).

I researched bipolar disorder, denied my child’s symptoms, waited to see if medication would help and got very little sleep. Months later, I signed up for the Family to Family education program and gradually my life came into focus.

Now, years later, I am still learning about mental illness as I teach this course. Being part of this large supportive and loving network of families is essential to my well-being.

Family to Family is an insightful peer program that teaches the facts about major mental illnesses, symptoms and medications available. Class participants often note that this class helps the family to understand the side effects of psychotropic medications and understand why so many newly diagnosed loved ones are stabilized only to refuse to continue to take their medications. Class members are siblings, spouses, children, parents and partners.

I found the stigma surrounding mental illness made it difficult to accept that it is a medical condition, not the result of poor parenting, family dysfunction, personal weakness or lack of character.

A common thread that runs through the sharing and conversation in Family to Family classes is that family members and loved ones who are mentally ill are often exceptionally intelligent. They debate their diagnosis, reject medications and/or refuse treatment. They challenge, negotiate, and can even threaten those around them who are trying to help. Given the opportunity to share their stories during the class, many families spoke about holidays and special celebrations disrupted by the anxious and panic driven behavior of their ill loved ones.

Brain chemistry, coping skills, crisis intervention, listening and communication skills, and advocacy are all topics covered in the class. Role playing and interactive workshops are also part of the course. As part of the rehabilitation and recovery class, a consumer who has participated in NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program visits to share firsthand what it is like to live with mental illness, as well as answer questions about his/her own treatment programs and recovery. Participants also share the resources that have been beneficial for their families and the teachers distribute a crisis file of emergency numbers.

While the class stresses self-care for the caregiver, empathy for our mentally ill loved ones is also emphasized. One class member reported, “I have always felt lots of guilt and I have finally found a way through this class that has given me relief from this very debilitating feeling.” Also, one parent observed “It is OK if our son is taking time to himself and not engaging socially as much as we would like. He may just need some recoup time.”

Class members are asked to share their aha! class experiences on an evaluation form at the end of the 12-week course. One family reported that moment came for them when “we tried to understand what the ill person feels and hears because of his illness.” Another class member was working to stop arguing with her son about his delusional comments.

In NAMI, we are all volunteers who live with mental illness in a family member, friend or significant other. We share what we have learned to support others going through the same experiences. Our classes and support groups are confidential and free. For more information, go to www.namiorangenc.org. NAMI members who have taken the Family-to-Family class can attend a weekend training to teach the course.

Find out more

For information on upcoming Family-to-Family classes, contact Nancy Brickman, NAMI Orange Family-to-Family coordinator, nbrickman@nc.rr.com 919-818-8065 or Violette Blumenthal, NAMI Durham, vibl46@frontier.com, 919-358- 6788. A Spanish language class will be offered soon.