April 22, 2016

By Rebecca Duke

rd2-(2).jpgI recently completed the NAMI Family-to-Family class and found it a valuable learning experience. The course is intended for family members, partners, significant others and friends of individuals living with mental illness. The free educational program helps caregivers better understand and support their loved one through the challenges and struggles of mental illness and learn ways to advocate for treatment and services. In addition, the class stresses the importance of self-care and maintaining one’s own well-being while helping a loved one.

Topics covered include the following:

  • Stages of emotional reactions to the trauma of mental illness
  • Characteristics of psychotic illnesses
  • Information on various mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, OCD and anxiety disorders
  • Basics about the brain, how genetics play a role and the biology behind mental illness
  • Early warning signs, reacting to crisis, problem solving and communication skills
  • Medications, treatment and recovery
  • Battling stigma and advocating for people living with a mental illness
  • Handling the negative feelings of anger, entrapment, guilt and grief
  • Learning how to care for oneself and achieve balance in one’s life while caring for another

The class I attended had about 20 students and three teachers/facilitators. We met once a week for 12 sessions. One facilitator, Denise, had been teaching the class for nine years; she shared with me that over time she’s noticed a shift in her students. They now arrive with less anger, more understanding and more knowledge about mental illness. Denise had also noticed an increase in the number of men who were taking the class.

The motivation to seek out and participate in the Family-to-Family class remains the same. We join to learn how best to help a loved one and cope with the grief and despair. We discover NAMI because we are desperate for help. We feel exhausted and depleted. We want to assist our loved one, but all our endeavors and attempts seem to fail. As Denise expressed, we are “the walking wounded.”

Our first class involved introductions. We shared about ourselves and also about our loved one who lives with mental illness. There were many tear-filled testimonials. Some couldn’t speak about the trials of their situation without crying. As the course continued, we learned about new and factual information, knowledge of various diagnosis, the chemistry involved in brain disorders, communication and problem solving skills and ways to advocate for a loved one.

The Family-to-Family class, as with all NAMI programs, regards the lived experience of the caregiver and the individual living with mental illness as invaluable. With each class, as we reviewed the curriculum, participants shared their knowledge, experience and feelings about the various topics.

Throughout the 12 sessions, we developed into a network of support, a group of knowing and compassionate people, all of whom get what it’s like to have a loved one who’s living with mental illness. We came to realize that our classmates could support us in a way that no others can: without judgment and with empathy and a greater understanding of our struggles and the weighty responsibility of caring for an individual with a mental illness. I felt less alone.

We also received suggestions and encouragement regarding self-care. Our lives can’t only be about our loved one. It’s not just about how to best care for them. It’s also about how to care for ourselves, while trying to do the best for them. Our quality of life matters, and we deserve peace of mind and happiness.

Over time, as we became a cohesive group, a transformation took place. The atmosphere and mood became noticeably lighter. With each week, the faces of my classmates, once sullen, drawn and tense, started to relax. At the start of each class, we greeted one another with smiles. Our eyes, once filled with sadness and despair, came back to life. There were still tears, but there was also laughter, healing and hope.

The last class was perhaps the most touching and telling. Our facilitators asked us to share our “aha” moments. The moments when something spoke to us. For instance, a piece of information that opened our mind and bettered our understanding, a dialogue that moved us and changed our perception or a tip or technique that had a positive outcome or effect.

Here is what the Family-to-Family class participants shared:

  • I used the “I” statement, and it worked. For the first time in many years, my sister and I spoke from the heart: we had a real conversation.
  • I felt empathy from the group.
  • I’ve learned how to better advocate for my loved one.
  • It’s easier to talk to my son about his drinking.
  • I found the contacts provided to assist us in advocating for our loved one most useful.
  • The class has helped me to let go. I’m not wanting or trying to control my loved one. The class has helped me to realize his thought processes and has given me tools.
  • I don’t feel like the victim anymore.
  • I had a lot of guilt that it was all my fault, that I didn’t bring him up right. I don’t have that guilt anymore. It’s not my fault.

If you would like more information on this life-changing program, or other free programs from NAMI Valley of the Sun, please contact the Education Coordinator Debbie Martinez at 602-759-8177 or [email protected].
Rebecca Duke is a member of NAMI Valley of the Sun—Maricopa County, Ariz.

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