Published: Jan 26, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Jan 26, 2013 02:22 PM
Over 30 years ago, I was in the spring semester of my last year in college, the first time around. After having studied the symptoms and causes of various mental illnesses, one of my fellow students asked our professor what she thought was the cause out of all that we had studied. She replied, I think its biochemical, but I cant prove it.
Almost twenty years later, as a nursing student in my second bachelor degree program, I was assigned to a patient with somatic schizophrenia on the locked unit of a hospital. It was horrible seeing her acutely ill: curled into a fetal position and begging us to do something about the bugs crawling in her head and the worms crawling in her belly. Two days later, back on her medications, she was as normal as anyone.
Thanks to these two experiences, I was in a better position than most to believe and accept that my 16-year-old son was ill when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1993. He wasnt bad. He didnt need to just shape up and get on with his life. And, thankfully, it wasnt my bad parenting that caused his problem. This is not information that most family members of the mentally ill have.
Unfortunately, my prior training and experiences led me to believe that all he had to do was take his pills and he would be fine. Two and a half years, five hospitalizations, and trials of practically every psychiatric medication known to man later, my son reached an almost miraculous stabilization that continues to this day. I am very grateful to his psychiatrists, to his therapists, to the hospital workers who monitored him, to a good friend/relative who happens to be a psychiatric nurse, to him for being the kind young man he is, and to NAMI especially for its Family to Family program.
This incredible program covers five major mental illnesses (Major Depression, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Illness, Panic Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), their symptoms, brain chemistry, basic medication information, coping skills, crisis intervention, listening and communication techniques, empathy, self-care for the care-givers, rehabilitation, recovery, stigma and advocacy. Developed largely by Dr. Joyce Clifford Burland, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and family member, this 12-week FREE program has helped more than 300,000 family members in all 50 states. It is a unique peer education program.
Especially in these days of shortened hospital stays, family members are called upon more than ever to care for loved ones who arent yet stable, but who nevertheless will be discharged home.
I had more experience than most family members do, but no one trained me for how to deal with an acutely ill family member 24 hours per day. His psychiatrists and therapists were wonderful, but they didnt have 2.5 hours for 12 weeks to teach me what this class did. One of them did suggest that I take it and that I get involved with NAMI.
The first time I went to a NAMI meeting, I cried almost the whole meeting. It was such a relief to not feel alone, to know that the other people there knew what I was going through, to get concrete suggestions for dealing with my son, and to hear that there was hope.
I am not alone in my gratitude for this NAMI program. Other class members have reported that the program helped them to understand:
• why diagnosing and finding the right medications can take time
• how to communicate better with the affected family member
• that their relative was not spoiled or lazy
• how to cope with their loved one.
Still other class members have felt less anger toward and more empathy with their loved ones, less guilt and isolation for themselves.
When a catastrophe like mental illness strikes a family, anything that can alleviate guilt and isolation, anything that can increase the familys coping skills, and anything that gives the family hope for dealing with the illness is immensely valuable. This class does all that.
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