A successful international program designed to help families with mentally ill relatives cope with their illnesses, as well as the stigma and misunderstandings surrounding them, is returning to Key West.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness's Family-to-Family Education Program is a free, 12-week course taught by instructors who themselves live with mental illness in their families. It will be offered from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays, beginning Jan. 9, at Unity Church, 1011 Virginia St.
"We sort of lost our leadership five years ago, and recently reestablished," said organizer/instructor Sherry Read of the recently relaunched NAMI Florida Keys. "We've registered ourselves as a non-profit in the state of Florida, and are working on becoming a 501(c)3 organization. We'll also be doing a membership drive in the near future."
Besides Read, other NAMI Florida Keys organizers include Phil Harris, of the Lower Florida Keys Health System, at DePoo Hospital, Joe Laino, of the South Florida Behavioral Network, and instructor Maurene Freedman, an old friend of Read's who also shares her experience of coping with a mentally ill family member.
According to NAMI literature, the course is "structured to help caregivers understand and support individuals with serious mental disorders, while maintaining their own well-being." Among the diseases involved are major depression and bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This last illness is a growing problem, Read said, as many former soldiers return home shell-shocked from their wartime experiences.
The curriculum has been adopted from a program developed by Joyce Burland at the University of Vermont.
"At its core, the program is about education, but just having everyone in the same room and finishing each others' sentences, is really important and supportive," Read said. "It starts out by teaching the dynamics of grief. People go through a mourning period when they deal with mental illness, as plans, hopes and dreams change. We address that, and teach how to take care of your own personal feelings."
Read first took the course 10 years ago. Two years later she attended a four-day training session in Orlando to learn to teach the course herself. Read has since taught the course twice.
"We teach in pairs," she said. "It's very intense."
Read stressed the confidential nature of the program.
"Because this is a small town, a lot of people worry about airing their dirty laundry in front of others, but we have a curriculum to get through. The really personal stuff is dealt with outside of class discussion."
Freedman, who received her training to become a NAMI instructor in Naples six months ago is as passionate as Read about the value of the program.
"It's filled to the brim with information," Freedman said. "That alone is reason enough to take the course. But the bonding you do with the people in the class is just a tremendous resource. It's nice to know that you're not alone. That's the big one, that you're no longer isolated."
For more information, or to register for the program, call 305-896-9182.
Anyone interested in joining NAMI can visit wwww.nami.org/join.