Families help families cope with mental illness

Mother and daughter holding hands on sofa — Getty Images/Blend Images

Families struggling to cope when loved ones have serious mental illness say they find the help they need through the Island’s Family-to-Family (F2F) class.

“Family members often come into the course raw with hurt and confusion, and desperate for help,” Margarett “Peggy” Burke said to The Times of the experience. “They leave the class better able to work the situation that mental illness has left them and their ill family member, and with a community to turn to for help.”

The class is sponsored by the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), and was created in 1991 for family members who are on the frontlines of serious mental illnesses. Over 300,000 people have taken the F2F course nationwide. The course is evidenced-based — scientifically proven to empower and enable those who take it.

Peggy Burke took the course off-Island, and brought the course to the Island in 2009. Since then, more than 120 Islanders and families have taken the course. The course begins again on the Island on Jan. 5, 2016.

Because of the stigma attached to mental illness, most family members interviewed for this article preferred anonymity, but shared examples of their experiences. People with serious mental illness, they report, may do things that are alarming. One young man drove by a house — not his — and saw a new Jeep in the driveway. He figured it was a gift from his father. He stopped and removed the skis from his car and put them in the Jeep, then entered the house and sat down in the living room as if he lived there. Another young man thought his bones were going to break and his body was going to fall apart. He could not be touched, and slept sitting up. Yet another young man appeared in a city park one morning and began giving away all of his belongings, including the clothes that he was wearing. This sort of behavior can be difficult, or even impossible, for parents and families to understand or cope with. The pain for the family members is unimaginable.

Until recently, there has been a lack of information in the community, which — according to those interviewed — can lead to years of confusion, disbelief, and helplessness. Without being able to share experiences, some parents wondered whether the erratic behavior of their child might just be the common behavior of a teenager. Could it be drugs? thought others. Some have said they hoped that perhaps their child, if diagnosed as having a psychotic break, would be the one in four that recovers completely after such an experience.

“When someone you love more than your own life,” said one participant in Family-to-Family, “… you see their life destroyed, taken away, your own life is shredded; you are beside yourself because there is nothing you can do … except by picking up pieces.”

“We didn’t know, we didn’t know, we didn’t know who to talk to,” said one.

Three of the mothers interviewed for this story reported being sent home by doctors and other health professionals with medications and told to administer them themselves and determine themselves what worked.

Another, whose child was suffering a major depressive state and would not leave the house, was refused at-home care. She was told her child would have to come in to the office. “I said, ‘If she had two broken legs, would you be doing this?’”

The F2F course, according to family members, provides the understanding and the support needed help a loved one overcome a serious mental illness when 45 minutes of therapy alone is not enough. Family members learn in the course, and from fellow participants, that their mentally ill loved one cannot, for instance, “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” because their boots have no straps. They come to see that behavior is not the “fault” of the sick person or of the parents, but is more likely to have a physical explanation: perhaps a chemical imbalance in the brain.

One mother, with a son suffering from schizophrenia, followed him across the country and back, traveled to Europe to bring him home, found him living on city streets, and responded to his calls. Yet she still could not convince him that he had an illness and needed help. Then she heard of and took the F2F class on the Island.

The course, she said, gave her the strength and the resources to obtain the needed help. She put together a team of professionals and was able to have her son placed in a hospital for an extended period of time. In the hospital, her son finally was able to confront his illness. He is now on medications and doing well.

One mother said the course gave her the courage to continue when she was 10 years into her child’s depression and social anxiety, and worn out.

“I wouldn’t have continued over the course of eight or nine years,” said Daryl Knight of Chappaquiddick of her son, “to have the strength to advocate for him.”

Another mother said the course allowed her to dismiss her own insecurities and be empathetic with her son’s schizophrenia. “He needed to know I understood … he was having an isolating battle, and needed to know Mom was on his side.”

The F2F course runs three hours one night a week for 12 weeks, and is for family members or friends of people with mental illness. Daryl Knight is teaching the course with Peggy Burke.

As one mother said after completing the course,“My son is back!”

For more information, contact Peggy at 508-693-5872 or Daryl at 508-627-5249.

Jonathan Burke, the author of this story, is the son of Peggy Burke, and has talked to the Island F2F class each of the past six years about his own experiences with mental illness.