YAKIMA, Wash. -- As a college administrator, Mary Stephenson knew students struggling with mental illness. But the issue became much more personal when her son was diagnosed.
Stephenson joined the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group founded in 1979 to represent people affected by mental illness, to learn as much as she could to understand the issues he faced, help him and help herself.
“Self-care is so important,” said Stephenson, who is president of the Yakima affiliate of the national organization.
Stephenson joined others Thursday evening at the last two-hour class of NAMI’s 12-week Family-to-Family program, which offers support and education for family members of adults living with mental illness. That includes parents, siblings, spouses, adult sons and daughters, partners and significant others.
Self-care is among the subjects highlighted in each session of the program, which is free. Though classes just ended, they will be offered again in the spring.
“Keep hope — things can really get better. Take advantage of all the possible cures there are for mental illness,” Annie Bringloe of Yakima told the group of around a dozen people in the Comprehensive Healthcare meeting room.
Bringloe, 72, spoke frankly about the depression she’s battled since she was a young teen.
“I had friends who supported me, but not my family,” Bringloe said, noting that an older sister sees mental illness as a character defect, not a medical condition.
It can be incredibly difficult for relatives of people struggling with mental illness. Most want to help, but what they think is best is not always the right thing. A loved one can respond in ways relatives find hard to address, such as emotional outbursts, stealing from them or keeping secrets. They may disappear for days or weeks as mania or depression deepens and befriend others their family members find worrisome.
That can intensify as the holidays reach their zenith and families reconnect, forcing long-simmering issues to the surface.
Research and counseling can provide answers. Some of the best information, though, comes from others who have learned from experience.
“It’s the family members who set this up and said something needs to be done,” Stephenson said of the Family-to-Family program.
Course leaders Linda Ovall and Marsha Rush know this well. Those who lead the Family-to-Family classes also have family members with mental illness and, like Stephenson, have had to learn some crucial information on their own.
“Those living with mental illness — what do they want in rehabilitation? A safe and stable environment, someone who sees them as special, an educated and supportive family,” Ovall said as she and others in the class took turns reading from the thick course book for the program.
The course includes information on illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and other mental health conditions, along with empathy and coping skills.
“Like our loved ones, we too must find support systems,” Rush said.
Rejecting the stigma and silence surrounding mental illness is crucial. Those suffering from it aren’t problems, but people with potential, class leaders stressed. A diagnosis is not “the end of the line,” as many previously believed.
One woman asked why more family members aren’t included in the recovery process. Tradition and privacy are major reasons, and individuals’ rights still need to be respected, course leaders said.
“We had to learn to let go,” Stephenson has said of her son, who lives in Spokane.
“He’s not a bad person. He has a medical illness. It’s traumatic for the family as well as the individual.”
Continued crises lead some to think their loved one’s situation won’t ever change. But that’s not true, Stephenson said. “We never give up hope,” she said.
Helping someone struggling with mental illness begins with a simple step.
“The first thing you do is listen,” she said.