Representatives from Bloomington’s National Alliance on Mental Illness led a class Tuesday intending to help educate relatives of those with mental illness. The organization and its classes work to offer resources and educational tools for caretakers of the mentally ill, NAMI family support facilitator Laura Jesseph said.
“We give them the hope to understand that they can help their loved ones through this,” Jesseph said.
Jesseph said she thinks courses like this are important because psychiatrists can be few and far between, likely due to the difficulty of the job and its low wages.
As a result, a lot of the caretaking responsibility falls to family members who have trouble adjusting to the situation, Jesseph said. In many cases, they may feel powerless against the effects of the mental illness.
“They feel overwhelmed, like there’s nothing they can do to help,” Jesseph said. “But they can help, and we can show them how.”
Joanne Shaver, another family support facilitator with NAMI, said these family members often have to set everything in their own lives aside in order to help their loved one through mental illness. In her case, she didn’t schedule doctor’s or dentist’s appointments for seven years because she was so focused on her sister.
But Shaver said this course can offer family members a break from this often overwhelming stress of handling mental illness.
“It’s a respite from the avalanche of stress,” Shaver said. “They come here and have room to breathe, a chance to escape for a little while.”
In addition to relieving stress and instilling new hope, Jesseph said the class also offers attendees the hard facts about mental illness, which she said are vital.
“It’s a very academic-oriented class,” Jesseph said. “We’re here to give family members all the information they need to help with mental illness.”
Included in the NAMI curriculum are topics such as neuroanatomy, diagnoses, symptoms, suitable drugs and therapies. Jesseph said using these topics to teach attendees about mental illness with a scientific mindset is essential.
“Mental illness is an illness like any other,” Jesseph said. “When we understand the biological basis of it, we can accept it as an illness above all.”
Accepting mental illness as true illness helps counter ignorant responses to those suffering from it, Jesseph said.
“When people say, ‘Oh get over it’ or ‘You’re overreacting,’ they do so much harm,” Jesseph said. “They can’t help it. It’s an illness.”
Shaver said another mission of the class is to improve communication between family members and loved ones with mental illness.
She said these efforts are clear in her own experience with the course when she was a student trying to learn more about her sister’s mental illness.
“My sister told me ‘Wow. You’ve been a lot nicer to me since you took that course,’” Shaver said. “So it definitely helped me connect with and understand my sister and her mental illness.”
But most of all, Shaver said the course creates a community of people dealing with many of the same problems in life.
She said this community allows caretakers to find support, gain resources, swap contact information for good psychiatrists and sometimes just laugh during difficult times.
“It’s not all gloom and doom,” Shaver said. “We come in and share stories and laughter. We lift each other up.”