WHAT IS THE BEST treatment program for people with alcoholism?
On a number of occasions I have asked this question to groups of people, and I have always gotten the same answer: A.A. Alcoholics Anonymous. I have never heard another answer. There are several interesting things about that. One is that I don't think any of the people giving that answer have ever read a scientific study showing that A.A. is the most effective alcohol treatment program, because I am not even sure that there has been one, or at least one that has gotten any notable publicity.
I think that people know A.A. works not because of something they have read but because they have seen its results among their family, friends and co-workers. One recent count shows over four million A.A. members throughout the world.
How does A.A. work? A.A. is self-help in the best sense of the word. As such it does not accept money from sources outside A.A., either private or government -- and it does not charge for its services. So how on earth does it keep on going and growing? Besides the obvious answer of a Higher Power, another may be that it operates according to higher principles such as the Golden Rule and that it is "better to give than to receive." Longtime A.A. members give to newcomers because that's what they would have wanted, and in fact got, when they were in the same situation.
There are other self-help programs that also work, even if they are not as well known as A.A. The National Alliance on Mental Illness Family-to-Family course is one such program which depends upon those who have been through a life crisis to help those who are still in the midst of theirs.
Like A.A., Family-to-Family operates on the principle of the wounded healer. Those who lead Family-to-Family programs are, like those who take the course, the secondary casualties of serious mental illness. We are children who have survived a childhood damaged by a parent's illness. We are brothers and sisters who have been traumatized by the psychotic episode of their sibling. We are husbands and wives who have to carry a family while their spouses go through yet another relapse in their disease. And we are parents who have watched the hopes and dreams of their children be shattered by a life-changing illness.
What we know, we know from experience, not from books. We have felt what they are feeling. We have walked down the same paths. So, we may be able to help keep them from making the same mistakes. So, we may help them find the help we found much quicker.
While we have seen the harm and felt the hurt that these serious illnesses can wreak on the individuals who have them as well as that of their families, we also have experienced the care and compassion of loving caregivers, have seen real healing and recovery and have hope yet more. Many of us have come through these events, as hard as they were, stronger and determined to help others who are still in a current crisis. This is what Family-to-Family helps us do.
The F-2-F course offers a professionally created curriculum which teaches about the nature of mental illness including how it impacts the brain and its functioning. It incorporates up-to-date information on the treatments for the major classes of mental illness, including schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder (also known as manic depression), major depression and borderline personality disorder.
It also helps teach communication skills which can help family members communicate more effectively with their ill relatives, and offers them self-care strategies so that they can better take care of themselves. It teaches skills which will help them better manage in times of crisis, which are an expected part of life with a family member with mental illness. The course also works to help these family members move from being victims of their relative's illness who are lost in the system to being advocates for them and helping find resources for others.
In the midst of the bungled "mental health reform," which has created chaos for mental health providers and service cutbacks for those with mental illness, it is more important than ever that those who have met the challenges of mental illness within their families reach out to those in the middle of them now.
Several Family-to-Family courses are scheduled for the beginning of September in Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and Durham. If you have a close family member with a serious mental illness and would like to participate in this challenging and valuable yet tuition-free course, call 929-7822 for more information and to register.
Gary D. Gaddy is on the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Orange County and one of the more than 115,000 graduates of Family-to-Family.
A version of this article was published in the Chapel Hill Herald Thursday August 16, 2007. Copyright 2007 Gary D. Gaddy