Among the most insidious of evils of this life are illness and disease, especially the brain disorders commonly called mental illness. Besides the toll they can take on a life, on a career, on the person him or herself, mental illness can destroy a family. But it doesn't have to be that way.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness's Family-to-Family Program is an intervention designed to help improve the lives of people who have been struck by mental illness, directly or indirectly, by educating their families about brain disorders, and offering practical strategies for dealing with their effects on daily life.
As one of the few people who has both been the one involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution and also the one doing the committing, I can tell you unequivocally, it isn't any fun from either side. My single near-catastrophic episode of 35 years ago has never been repeated. For most struck by mental illness that is not so. Since that time, I have also been blessed by the opportunity to take part in a program that works to help make the lives of those impacted by severe mental illness better, and would like to pass the blessing along.
In my experience, and that of many other participants, this program works. NAMI calls the program Family-to-Family because everyone involved has a close family member who is dealing with a serious mental illness: a brother, a mother, a husband, a child. This holds true not only for the class members but also for the class facilitators. Everyone involved in organizing and leading the class is an unpaid volunteer who has been through the same kinds of circumstances that many of the class members are now in.
Over 115,000 family members nationwide have graduated from Family-to-Family. A remarkable statistic, given no one is making money off the program, and the volunteers who make the program go are people who took the course -- and the training necessary to lead it. The course is free to the participants, but requires a 12-week commitment for the students, all of whom are or may become caregivers of a family member with a severe mental illness.
The curriculum is nationally recognized, providing current information about schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder (also called manic depression), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, as well as co-occurring brain and addictive disorders.
Beyond covering basic scientific facts about brain disorders and the most effective current treatments for promoting recovery, including the latest medications, side effects and strategies for improving medication adherence, the Family-to-Family curriculum covers strategies for handling crises and relapse. These include workshops in problem solving, listening skills and communication techniques as well as exercises designed to help family members gain empathy for the experience of a person with mental illness.
Other course components focus on care for the caregiver, including coping with worry, stress, and emotional overload and giving guidance on locating appropriate support and services within the community. A final element of the course helps empower family members by informing them of advocacy initiatives designed to improve and expand services, showing them how they can be part of making things better.
More than anything else, NAMI as an organization, and Family-to-Family as a program, are about hope, realistic hope. We may cope for today but we will hope for tomorrow. Continual advances in pharmacology give us real reason to have real hope for treatments that are already light years ahead of where they were 35 years ago.
And we can realistically hope that things can be better at the human level for those with mental illness -- if we study, learn and work to make ourselves more capable of helping them. And we can realistically hope that things can be better for the families of those with mental illness -- if we band together to help make their lives better by our kindness, caring, concern and assistance. And we can realistically hope that things can be better for our society -- if we stand together and demand together that our society treat those with mental illness fairly and compassionately.
Gary D. Gaddy serves on the board of the NAMI in Orange County, NC and of Club Nova in Carrboro, a rehabilitation clubhouse program for individuals with mental illness in Carrboro. Go to NAMI.ORG to learn more about the Family-to-Family Program, or to see how you can work to make things better for those with mental illness.
A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill News, Sunday, January 7, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy