After a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness, many family members find themselves in an escalating state of turmoil. After seeking rapidly declining mental health resources, it seems there’s nowhere to turn for help. But those afflicted with these serious illnesses and their families do have an avenue of hope.
Psychiatrists, therapists and case managers all have significant influence in the recovery process from mental illness. But, the perceptions and attitudes of family members about mental illness are also crucial. They can make very important contributions to recovery by supporting, confirming and verifying that these struggling loved ones are welcomed back to a secure place in our world.
To that end, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers 12-session Family-to-Family Education Programs free-of-charge throughout the year for family caregivers of individuals with mental illnesses. NAMI Hawa‘i is a partner in educating, advocating for and supporting people in our communities who are living with mental illness and its effects.
Bob and Harriet Collopy teach a series of classes that help families cope with mental illness.
The classes are not ordinarily facilitated by doctors and psychiatrists, but by NAMI-trained family members and mental health service consumer volunteers who can help traumatized ‘ohana cope by sharing their experiences and evidence of real-life recovery.
On Maui, Bob and Harriet Collopy have offered these Family-to-Family classes several times a year for the last five years at the Cameron Center in Wailuku.
All instruction and course materials are free to class participants. The material covers everything from communication skills, empathy and self-care to brain physiology and medications. Participants also have the opportunity share their own experiences of living with and caring for an ill relative.
While friends, neighbors and relatives may not understand the complexities and frustrations of caring for a mentally ill family member, course participants who might otherwise feel isolated often find consolation in the similarities of shared stories.
Although this is not a support group, the Collopys also hold those separately throughout the year. Family members meet regularly to support one another and share information about treatment, services and recovery.
You might think that the meetings themselves would be depressing, but they are filled with just as much humor and laughter as they are the harsh realities of mental illness.
The Family-to-Family Education Programs are prepared and delivered by family members who have lived—or are now living with—the same challenges you may be facing and struggle with the practical every-day problems that must be solved.
Harriet, who has a master’s degree in social work, was a case manager for the severely mentally ill in the Twin Cities for the last 12 years of her career. Bob, who has a Human Development M.A., worked in primary and secondary education as teacher and counselor, and later in a clinic and private practice as a therapist.
Bob and Harriet are not just well-informed angels of mercy, they are both veteran mental healthcare professionals who know intimately the tribulations of living with a loved one with mental illness. They spoke often of their beloved son who was afflicted with schizophrenia at age 19. Their tales of their trials are both heart-wrenching and heartwarming—the compassion they show their students is absolutely genuine.
“We went through the NAMI training and facilitate the classes because we went through the heartbreak that everyone goes through who has a loved one with mental illness,” said Harriet. “We felt it was time to share and support others.”
“The people who have attended this class have been such a blessing,” added Bob. “It is truly humbling to hear their stories. They give us a new perspective on our own past experiences.”
The program’s wide scope provides family members an invaluable understanding of mental illness—at times, from the perspective of the ill loved-one.
But equally important, the program provides a framework that supports ongoing hope for the future. It may be a different future than once existed—but people with mental illness can recover and return to lives they had once envisioned. The road to recovery is comprised of an essential combination of contributions, education and relationships made up of both tough and tender love.
Over 115,000 family members have graduated from this national program. The more people know about mental illness, the less likely they will hold onto prejudice and stigmatizing opinions that become obstacles on the path to wellness.
“We are strong believers in education,” said Harriet. “Knowledge is power. We have seen the people who have taken our class become very empowered regarding their own stress management and advocacy for their loved ones.”