My Mom, having raised three daughters with a smorgasbord of issues, decided that at 72 years old she was going to go down to the National Alliance of Mental Illness near her home in Florida, and get the facts on why the Mental Healthcare System in America is such a failure. The recent high profile tragedies tired her so much, that when she was told that there was an 8 week class for loved ones, care givers and advocates of people with mental illness starting that week she signed up - and signed up my poor Dad too! I, being out and about with my many layers of unwell, became the catalyst, and at first they went begrudgingly, by the end my Dad was telling me facts with a knowing determination to get involved in changing the laws, and my Mom decided to start a group for parents and spouses of those who suffer from mental illness in her community. I really think this amazing program at NAMI helped them let go of some second guessing, guilt, and a sense of failure because I was not “normal,” none of us were, and finally come to accept, as did all of the participants, that they can do all they can do, but they cannot fix or control their loved one or their illness, but they are not victims and there is a lot they can do especially for themselves. These are four questions my Mom answered for me to put on this blog. Encourage your family and friends to reach out for help, my parents are in their 70s, and they already seem changed and more at peace after participating in this program. Enjoy!
1. What made you reach out, and sign up for a free education class for parents, caregivers, and loved ones of children and adults with mental illness at NAMI?
I’m not sure when I found out about NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), or why I felt now was the time to get involved and get educated about my daughter’s illness and my own frustration and inability to always deal with my own feelings and understanding, but I am glad I did. I liked the idea that it seemed to be a support group not just for parents, but those who were in recovery or wanted to know more. I would basically make a small donation and read the great articles sent in their mailer. It wasn’t until the 24 children were shot at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and hearing the media say things that got me upset, that I said I have to become involved and learn more and do more. I also saw the struggle in Florida my daughter and others were having getting help and felt one day I could do more to be an advocate for NAMI instead of working in the shadows due to stigma. No one can understand a parent of a child or young adult with mental illness like the mom or dad that has walked in their shoes.
2. What kind of people participated in the group? Would you recommend parents and loved ones participate in NAMI support groups?
Yes. I knew, like all of the other attendees who pushed to come no matter how tired from their own day and own personal struggles, that the investment in the program was worth it. Not just because of the amount of knowledge and understanding I gained, but the camaraderie and laughter we enjoyed as a group on a mutual journey to find balance and solutions for us and our loved ones. My particular group had already done a lot of their own research and had educated themselves, so as we learned members of the group often shared their own personal experiences and suggestions for coping that worked for them. There was a genuine concern if any members no showed to the meetings, we all sent hope and prayed that all was well and their absence was for a good reason. At the last session I shared that because of the stigma of mental illness, I often stayed silent in public when I heard misinformation or saw the opportunity to speak up. I was scared people would see my daughter as sick, bipolar, and not meet her as she is, an amazing girl who happens to have bipolar.
3. What advice would you give parents and loved ones who want to get involved in recovery or mental health awareness?
To Google your local NAMI and other mental health organizations like Bring Change to Mind and the APA local chapter to see what opportunities are around for education and outreach. Being involved with other care givers and advocates really helps you remember that you have to put your health and wellness on the top of your list and that you are not alone in your struggle. Being in my 70s, and having watched all of my children grow up over the last 20 years of developments and theories and medications and advances in brain and mood and psychology sciences, I know the old fashioned or keeping your problems to yourself and never discussing family problems outside the home or with people outside of the family can be both dangerous and doesn’t really serve anyone, especially you. In the end, I learned by taking part in the NAMI training that I can finally let go of the guilt from the past, the questioning of myself and every move I made or everything I said and did to make my child this way, the constant worrying and fear and frustration finally can end, I know I am doing what I can, but I do not have to run and fix and change what I cannot. I can just take my tools and hope they serve me better ahead. Knowledge, Education and finding a place for you to vent, be heard, understood, and maybe even find humor really changes everything.
4. How do you plan to use what you learned? Are you going to make changes in your own behavior or life because of anything you gained in the class?
I am more motivated than ever to volunteer and do outreach for both families of those who suffer and for the public. I really hope to get involved in the legislation and laws around mental illness health care, prevention, early detection, and help for parents, spouses and children who are affected by caring for or living with someone who has a mental illness. I hope to share my own story so maybe other parents and loved ones consider educating themselves. I really imagined a bunch of negative, frustrated people at wits end meeting to lament their hard ships in dealing with their mentally ill child, but it was the most positive, upbeat, truly concerned and invested group of people there to get the facts and information so the person they love can live a better life-and in the end so that we could as well. What a great adventure!