Your Special Child - September 2011

Families find support and understanding of mental illness with NAMI

By Amy Landsman

Having a child with a serious mental illness is a life-altering situation. That’s why the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, stands ready to help.
This nonprofit, which is dedicated to improving the lives of people affected by mental illness, offers two free programs for local families whose lives are affected by members with mental health issues.
First, there is the six-week program, NAMI Basics.
Deneice Valentine, the Peer Education and Support Program coordinator for NAMI Baltimore, explains that NAMI Basics is for parents and caregivers of youngsters ages infancy through the mid-teens who have a serious mental illness, a serious emotional disturbance, or who are having symptoms but have not been diagnosed.
The Basics course gives participants a thorough grounding in everything from the origins of mental illness, to making choices about medication, to preparing a crisis plan. Currently, NAMI Basics is offered only in the Baltimore metropolitan area, but plans are to make it available statewide.
“They learn about the biological basis of mental illness. They learn about stigmas and mental illness in children. They also learn about IEPs [Individualized Education Programs]. They learn how to keep a record of their child’s health care, the different types of mental health providers, how to know what kind of treatment a child needs, and how to make a decision about psychotropic medications,” says Valentine. “They also get an overview of the systems their child may become involved with, such as the mental health system, the schools, or juvenile justice. It is a comprehensive course.”
A trained parent-instructor teaches the classes. Towson mom, Mary Porter, taught last year’s NAMI Basics class in the basement of Govans Boundary United Methodist Church, in Baltimore. She joined NAMI when her teen daughter was struggling with depression and attempting suicide, noting that there were some “very, very rough years from age 10 to 18.”
Her daughter is now a 22-year-old college student, and is doing much better. And Porter trains other parent-instructors.
“I see the transformation of parents, of feeling so much more empowered,” says Porter. “You get your sense of humor back. You realize there are things about your life that are totally ridiculous! But you get a network of people that can help you find resources.”
The second NAMI program is the 12-week Family-to-Family (FTF) Education Program, geared toward families with older teens and adults.
Frank Laws, who lives in Harford County, has a 28-year-old son who suffers from schizo-affective disorder, a severe mental illness with symptoms that include delusions, hallucinations, and depression. His son is currently living in a residential center in Vermont.
Laws says that taking FTF was very helpful.
“There was a lot of education presented in the course of 12 weeks,” says Laws. “The other thing is that you’re there with a group of people who are similarly situated. There’s the opportunity every week to discuss the different facets of dealing with folks with mental illness.”
FTF is offered at about a dozen locations statewide.
“It covers the biological basis of mental illness, medication, treatment options, [and includes a] communications skills workshop, invaluable for helping you communicate with your loved one who has a mental illness,” Valentine explains, adding that a module for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), appropriate for families of veterans, recently was added to the program.
As with NAMI Basics, FTF is taught by parent-educators.
Laws believes FTF helped him understand that his son lives in a different reality.
“One of the things that’s difficult to understand or appreciate is that a person who is suffering from a personality disorder doesn’t think like we do,” he says.
Both programs draw a diverse group of people, united by their common concern for their sons, daughters, or other loved one.
“It’s kind of remarkable,” notes Porter. “You walk in, you look around the room and think, ‘I don’t know if I have anything in common with these people.’ But, by the end of the program, people form close bonds around the issue of what it’s like to try to raise a child with mental illness,” she says.
“There are things you can say when you’re in the group that you can’t say to your friends. They wouldn’t understand,” Porter continues. “I think what parents experience a lot is the shame. ‘You must be a bad parent because your child is behaving in this way.’”
“Mental illness is not a casserole illness,” she adds. “You get cancer, and people bring you a casserole. Your child tries to commit suicide—people don’t know what to do. They stay away from you. It’s very isolating for parents and for families.”
Whether through NAMI Basics or FTF, NAMI is working to help change that. BC

More about the NAMI Programs
The Family-to-Family Education Program is offered several times a year. Two 12-week sessions are starting this month—on Thursday, September 1, in Parkville, and on Monday, September 26, in Timonium.
The NAMI Basics program is scheduled to be offered in the spring of 2012. The dates and location have not yet been set.
For more information about the programs, call 410-435-2600, visit the website

© Baltimore’s Child Inc. September 2011