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updated: 8/11/2014 2:06 PM

NAMI offers a lifeline for families struggling with mental illness

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By Sherry Manschot

The statistics are astounding. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in four adults experiences a mental illness in a given year. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Our youth are not immune. Approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 experience severe mental disorders in a given year. For ages 8-15, the estimate is 13 percent. Those numbers suggest that almost every family will be touched by someone with a mental illness at some time.

Yet even with those staggering numbers, mental illness remains one of the most complex range of disabilities to diagnosis and most convoluted to understand. "Often times, parents of a child with a new diagnosis find it very difficult to understand," says Angela Adkins, executive director of the DuPage chapter of NAMI. "We see parents, especially moms, blame themselves for their child's mental illness. Of course it is not their fault."

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Mental illnesses are very real medical conditions. They can interrupt a person's thinking, feeling, mood and ability to relate to others and the world around them. The impact can range from mild to severe. Some people can live very typical lives and others have extreme difficulty with daily living. Some of the more common diagnosis include: bipolar disorder, major depression, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.

There is no doubt that life changes for the person with the diagnosis. "With early intervention and ongoing recovery support, it might not be the life you thought you would have, but it can be a great life," assures Adkins. "It doesn't have to define who you are." In the NAMI offices, pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens, Michelangelo, Mike Wallace, Terry Bradshaw and Tipper Gore are reassuring reminders of some very notable people who have experienced major mental illness and have gone on to contribute greatly to society.

Adkins, who has been at the helm of the DuPage chapter since 2009, is proud of the level of support NAMI continues to offer through resources, education and advocacy. NAMI's primary programs are there to support those with a diagnosis. Through support groups, drop-in recreation centers, residences and a variety of assistance programs, they provide consistent support in a safe, judgment-free environment. The staff, consisting of trained family members and peers, offers a very real and unique insight into the world of recovery.

For parents, especially those with a child receiving a new diagnosis of mental illness or those who suspect an underlying illness but do not have a diagnosis as yet, the first place to start may be with the Family-to-Family and NAMI Basics programs. These are both designed to cut through the clutter of misconceptions and provide education and support.

The Family-to-Family program focuses on many aspects of mental illness and treatments while also touching on common emotional reactions and providing family members constructive strategies for dealing with the trauma of mental illness. NAMI Basics is specifically for those with children younger than 18 years old. There are also support groups where parents can reach out to others who are experiencing the same thoughts, concerns and fears.

These programs can provide a tremendous outlet for parents and caregivers. "Our programs are led by parents who understand firsthand what it is like to love and live with someone with a mental illness," says Adkins. "Sometimes parents just need to vent in a safe place where they know they won't be judged. It's not that they don't love their child; it's just that they don't like the situation they are in. And sharing that with other parents who understand can be extremely helpful and comforting."

Importantly, through these peer-led programs, parents can hear how people are successfully living day-to-day and about how dreams and aspirations are being realized. Help is there to bridge the bumps in the road so that they can successfully navigate through them and come out on the other side.

Beyond the family, anyone involved with a person with a mental illness needs to understand how to interact and how best to cope with them to help support their ongoing recovery. NAMI also has programs designed to educate teachers and staff, medical and safety personnel. They have even have a program reaching out to middle school and high school students. This year alone they have been in front of 15,000-plus students in DuPage County, educating students on the early warning signs of mental illness and how they can get help and recovery, as well as hearing personal journeys that resonate with students.

Looking forward, NAMI DuPage is committed to a 33,000-square-foot, $11 million Mental Health Community Center being built in partnership with the DuPage County Health Department. Plans include a pilot employment program, expansion of the recreational and social opportunities, a peer-led alternative to the traditional hospital emergency room called the Living Room and housing referral/resource efforts.

"We want people to look forward to what life has to offer," say Adkins. "NAMI is here to help every step of the way."

If you are in DuPage County, you can find more information at www.namidupage.org. NAMI has chapters all over the nation. To find one in your area, visit www.nami.org.

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at sherrym@wdsra.com. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.

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