A training program to help people understand and live with family members suffering from mental illness starts on Wednesday, Sept. 5.
Sponsored through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), those signing up for the family-to-family course meet once a week for 11 weeks. The curriculum covers identifying the three major types of mental illnesses, forms of mood disorders, basics of understanding the brain, types of medications used to treat mental illnesses, and other subjects.
The classes and materials are free.
Jan Melnicoe, who is the lead trainer of the program, said the course gives people an understanding of mental illness as well as strategies for coping with a family member who is mentally ill.
A retired teacher who taught students in first grade to high school, Melnicoe said the program is research — and evidence-based. “We have a quality curriculum that is delivered by family members. It’s that relationship that makes it so powerful.”
Melnicoe explained that having someone in the family who is mentally ill can cause others to have a crisis of their own. She said she took the NAMI class after someone in her own family was diagnosed with a mental illness. Since then she has become involved in training others.
Placerville residents Larry and Cathy Hartrum are also NAMI trainers. Larry said he and his wife became involved when their son, who was 32 at the time, had a crisis and had to be taken to a psychiatric facility. He was there for 17 days during Christmas. Their son’s crisis became a family one that almost broke them up. When they learned about NAMI, they attended a support meeting and learned how to cope.
Later both Cathy and Larry took the NAMI course.
“It gave us a different attitude and language to use with issues that arose,” he said. “Mental illness is an illness like any other. The training taught us how to communicate and support our partner. It helps you out of the crisis and teaches you how to survive because you go through a crisis too. And since a mentally ill person goes through more than one crisis, it helps you through the next one as well.”
Cathy said parents are often very grateful after going through the training. “They say, ‘Why didn’t I see it’? Why didn’t I see the mental problems?’ Sometimes those with mental problems self-medicate. They turn to drugs or alcohol to ease the symptoms. That’s what motivates me to get this information out to people so they know there’s a way to help and there are successful treatments. This class offers hope.”
“We fight the stigma of mental illness,” said Larry. “In the news when someone goes on a shooting spree, it ends up the person is a paranoid-schizophrenic or bipolar. People start to think of the mentally ill as violent. But less than 1 percent are violent.”
Lise Wright agreed, saying that “generally the mentally ill are taken advantage of.” A paranoid-schizophrenic herself, Wright said she would self-medicate by drinking. In denial about her illness, she would go on and off her medications. After years of doing so, in 1998 she said she finally “got sick and tired of being sick and tired” and decided to stick with her medication and stopped drinking. Later she went to work for the county as a mental health worker. Recently retired, she and her husband Michael both volunteer with NAMI.
Melnicoe said that 6.2 percent of the population suffers from severe mental illness, which in El Dorado County translates to 12,000 people. “Less than half are treated,” she said. “That includes people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or anxiety disorders. All are extremely debilitating, but with proper help all these people can be helped.”
Recognizing signs of mental illness in people can be difficult because sometimes the signs are subtle and develop over a period of time. Usually signs of schizophrenia appear in childhood.
“Parents may think it’s teenage rebellion. They don’t think of their child as having a mental illness,” said Larry.
His wife said she started remembering how her son would just sit with a vacant stare on his face. As a child he would also do anything to keep everything orderly. His room was perfectly neat. But in his teens, he became angry, disorganized, began using drugs, and was hearing voices.
“If primary physicians were trained, we could reduce the damage done,” said Melnicoe. “The earlier the diagnosis, the less likely the homelessness, drugs, and criminal justice problems. A diagnosis of mental illness is based on behaviors. It is a brain disorder caused by differences in brain chemistry. Brain chemistry problems translate into behaviors.”
Melnicoe said, among other things, everyone in the class receives a crisis file with phone numbers, resources, homework, and a list of do’s and don’ts.
“You’re not alone,” she said. “Families blame themselves or others for what is happening. But we don’t blame the family or the person with mental illness. We just try to get everyone paddling in the same direction. That way the whole family recovers together.”
Classes run from 6:30 to 9 p.m. once a week. All the classes will be held at the Office of Education, Room B-2, 6767 Green Valley Road, Placerville. People have until the third class to sign up for the program.
For more information or to sign up, contact Cathy Hartrum at 530-644-5404 or Jan Melnicoe at 530-677-2676. Additional information about NAMI is available on their Website at nami.org/.
And for those who want to attend a NAMI support group meeting rather than take the class, they meet two times a month at 7 p.m. The first Tuesday of the month meetings are held in the Administrative building at the County Government Center and the third Thursday of the month they are held at the Marshall library which is located at 681 Main Street in Placerville.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or email@example.com. Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.