When someone very close to us is diagnosed with a serious illness, such as cancer, chances are we learn all we can about their diagnosis. We do this so that we can educate ourselves and learn how to best support them. The same should be true of a brain illness. However, sometimes mental health is not put in the same realm as physical health. Loved ones may think things will get back to normal on their own, and sometimes this does happen. But in most cases, people suffering from a mental illness need just as much medical help and family support as someone suffering from a disease like cancer. It is in the best interest of the person suffering, as well as the loved ones who support them, to get educated on the subject.
But where to start? There are websites such as this one, on navigating HIPAA rules. There are other websites on understanding a specific diagnosis or handling a crisis. Other sites focus on communication and finding a therapist. It’s one thing to browse the internet, alone, searching for information. But a more effective solution may be a class, where you learn with others in similar situations, how to best support a loved one.
How NAMI’s Family to Family class improves lives
One of the most recognized classes for family members of someone with a serious mental health condition is the one NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) offers. It’s called Family to Family and is offered across the country at no cost. This is an evidence-based program. This means that research shows the program significantly improves coping and problem-solving skills for loved ones supporting a mentally ill person. The classes are once a week for eight weeks. Most classes are held virtually for the time being. It is taught by NAMI-trained family members with lived experience.
My husband and I took this eight-week class in 2019, and it fundamentally changed the relationship we have with our daughter. Prior to taking Family to Family, my husband and I were often at odds on how to handle situations. We also had the same expectations for our daughter, who was suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges, as we had for our other, mentally healthy daughter. I often blamed our parenting skills on the problems we faced.
Family to Family helped us understand that no one is to blame for a mental illness. Also, it changed the way we communicate with our daughter and helped us to realize realistic expectations. Once we started making changes in the way we interacted with our daughter, her behavior started changing as well. I’m not saying it was a miracle, and things didn’t transform overnight. It was a gradual process of coming together in a more productive, compassionate way.
Class Organization and Content
The Family to Family classes focus on a different subject each week. It might be composed of parents, siblings, adult children, in-laws and close friends, all who support their loved one with mental health issues. Taking the class with others and recognizing we were not alone in our struggles brought us comfort. We all shared our stories as we learned more about brain diseases and how to best support our loved ones.
Each week focused on a different topic. We learned how mental illness affects the brain, as well as what to do in a crisis. We learned about treatment options. Two of the most compelling weeks had to do with communication and empathy. These are the classes that improved the relationship we had with our daughter. We were able to show empathy toward her and use the communication skills we learned. In turn, our relationship with her improved a lot.
NAMI Family to Family class is available to you
Family to Family classes provide the same information in every state. For the past two years, most have been taught live on-line. The NAMI Family to Family class had such a positive impact on our family dynamic that I decided to train to become a facilitator. Helping others navigate life when caring for a loved one with mental health challenges is a rewarding way to give back to the community that helped our family.
You can look for a Family to Family class you can attend on the NAMI National website. There, you will also see that a similar class brings together those living with mental health challenges. That one is called Peer to Peer. It teaches coping and recovery skills to those living with mental health challenges. Both of these classes are a great asset to the communities they serve.