(Editor’s note: The names of the family in this story are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of the family member living with mental illness.)
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
David and Nina’s daughter Rose developed anxiety during elementary school while dealing with epilepsy and her peers’ reaction to it. By age 11, Rose was seeing a psychiatrist and taking antidepressant medication. The psychiatrist retired and so did the next one who treated Rose. Finding psychiatric health care providers proved challenging for the Quad-City family. Later, Rose’s reaction to a prescribed medication at age 14 led to a mental health crisis that traumatized her parents, younger siblings and herself. She spent seven days at Robert Young Center for Community Mental Health in Rock Island, Illinois, to overcome that crisis.
Mental health challenges are a reality for many families living in the 22 counties of the Diocese of Davenport and across the nation. The Robert Young Center serves 3,000 children a year in a region that encompasses Scott, Clinton, Cedar, Jackson and Muscatine counties in Iowa and Rock Island and Mercer counties in Illinois. The number of children served continues to increase and with the delta variant of the coronavirus pandemic, “we’re seeing an increase in crises,” said Joseph Lilly, director of outreach for the Robert Young Center. Before their daughter’s discharge from the Robert Young Center four years ago, David and Nina received a folder with resources that included a flyer on support groups offered through NAMI Greater Mississippi Valley. Nina was not ready to consider the possibility. “I was thinking, ‘We are not sharing our dirty laundry with everybody else,’” she recalled.
However, she sees God’s hand in guiding her and David to NAMI through their role as foster parents. Their foster care supervisor suggested a NAMI education class to gain class hours for licensing requirements. David and Nina signed up for NAMI’s Family-to-Family Education for families supporting an adult living with a mental health condition, not realizing a program for families of children (NAMI Basics) was also available. The class proved to be a godsend.
“It was the compassion and the understanding of the instructors” who also experienced life with a loved one living with a mental health condition, said Nina. “It was the realization that we were not alone. We were surrounded by other families going through the kinds of things we were going through,” David said. “We found out there were a whole bunch of folks in as much need as we were. We were all living with a loved one living with a mental health condition and we were all learning how to live with that, better.”
David especially appreciated the resources he gained through the Family-to-Family class. He learned to change the way he spoke to his daughter. “I was learning to separate the person from the condition … things are so much better. I can understand some of the ‘triggers’ and avoid them.” The education and the connection with others equipped Nina and David to coordinate treatment plans, treatment teams, improve their relationship with their daughter, and strengthen their marriage, they said.
Nina and David’s gratefulness for their education led them to pay it forward by training to become educators of the Family-to-Family class and facilitators of a support group for caregivers of youths living with a mental health condition. They also volunteer for NAMIWalks, an annual fundraising event that helps make education and support groups available throughout Iowa and the nation.
This year’s NAMIWalks 5-K takes place Sept. 18 in Veterans Memorial Park in Bettendorf (visit the NAMI-GMV website at namigmv.org to register for the walk). NAMI-Iowa will hold its walk on Sept. 25 in Johnston, Iowa (namiiowa.org). Participants may participate in-person or virtually. There is no entry fee but donations are welcome.
The support group that Nina and David facilitate provides participants with an outlet for sharing their struggles with others on similar journeys. “Support groups are structured, and designed to move people through trauma,” said Christina McNamara-Schmidt, development manager for NAMI Greater Mississippi Valley.
Nina and David have welcomed participants whose loved ones deal with anxiety, depression, suicide attempts or other challenges. “You have to trust each other,” Nina said. “There are some pretty raw conversations you’re listening to. Sometimes people just need a hug.” The support group is not faith-based, but David said he is not afraid to talk about his faith, without preaching. “I think God is working through me.”
NAMI does offer an interfaith resource network, NAMI FaithNet, composed of NAMI members, friends, clergy and congregations who provide encouragement to faith communities desiring to be welcoming and supportive of persons and families living with mental illness. The network recognizes the vital role of spirituality in the recovery journeys of many who live with mental health conditions, those for whom faith is a key component (nami.org/Get-Involved/NAMI-FaithNet).
Like all families living with a loved one with a mental health condition, David and Nina’s family hopes to extinguish the stigma of mental illness by sharing their stories. They admit that society has a long way to go, as evidenced by Rose’s choice to keep her mental health challenge private for fear of rejection. “That’s why these support groups are so important,” Nina said. “You need to continue advocating for your loved one.”
Mental health conditions affect the family as a whole, as Nina and David have discovered. They remind their younger daughters, now in middle school and high school, not to take Rose’s behavior toward them personally. Now their youngest daughter is experiencing anxiety because of the pandemic. Nina and David are using the knowledge they gained through NAMI to help her work through it.
Meanwhile, Rose, now 18, lives on her own and is working and attending college classes. She is managing her mental health condition with the help of an excellent psychiatrist and her parents’ unconditional love. Rose calls her mom often and Nina supports her daughter simply by listening. “We’ve learned to be there for her,” David said.
Mental health resources
NAMI Greater Mississippi Valley (NAMI-GMV) serves Scott, Clinton, Muscatine, Cedar and Jackson counties in Iowa and Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties in Illinois. It offers resources for all ages. Check out resources for parenting a child with a mental health condition at (namigmv.org/parenting-a-child-with-mental-illness/).
NAMI Basics is a six-week, free and confidential class for parents of children and adolescents (and other family caregivers) who have either been diagnosed with a mental health condition or who are experiencing symptoms but have not yet been diagnosed. A nationally developed program taught by trained volunteers who have lived experience with children.
• NAMI Family Support Groups – For Families of Adults Living with a Mental Health Condition.
• For Caregivers of Youth Living with a Mental Health Condition.
In partnership with the Robert Young Center — this is a specialized NAMI Family Support Group for caregivers of youth living with or exhibiting symptoms of a mental health condition. Parents, foster parents, grandparents and other direct caregivers are welcome to attend.
• NAMI Connection Peer Recovery Support Group — for Adults Living with a Mental Health Condition.
Visit namigmv.org/support-groups/ for more information.