Course to help relatives cope with mental illness


Jack Monahan was angry at his son for years - angry at his performance in school, angry that he stayed in bed all day.

"We would constantly be fighting. There was a lot of anger, a lot of aggressive behavior," Monahan said about life with his son, who has bipolar disorder.

It was not until he enrolled in a 12-week course for people with a mentally ill family member that he gained a greater insight into his adult son's behavior.

"When I began, through the class, to understand where he was coming from, that got rid of my anger," said Monahan, who with another course graduate will teach the next session of the "Family to Family" program offered by the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill-Howard County.

The first class will meet from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. tomorrow in the county's Mental Health Authority suite at Dorsey's Search Village Center.

The free program, offered twice a year, covers the causes, treatments and symptoms of mental illness and how to better understand and communicate with family members who have psychiatric disorders.

Monahan said he thinks the course is effective because it is not taught by mental health professionals. "Like the students, we have someone with a mental illness in our family," said Monahan, who took the course in 2000 and taught it last fall after he had completed a training program.

When someone in the family is mentally ill, every member is affected in some way, said Monahan, whose son is now stable, lives on his own and has a part-time job.

"It puts a constant strain on family relationships," he said. "And when it's a child with the illness, it puts a great strain on the marriage so it's really important for the parents to work through the various issues.

"Other siblings can become alienated because of behavioral issues," Monahan said. "So it's a family problem, not just an individual's problem."

Dick Males, the other course instructor, has an adult son who has schizophrenia.

"I think the main thing is it helped me understand that it was a disease, an illness, not some behavioral thing or bad parenting," he said.

Class topics that Males found helpful included physiology of the brain, the most effective medications for certain illnesses and how to handle problem behavior and the stigma of mental illness.

"We also talk about how a person feels and perceives things when they have a mental illness," said Males, who took the course last fall. "It's helping me to communicate better with my son," who has been stable for five years.

Before he completed Family to Family, Males said he did not know what to say when his son told him that he was hearing voices.

"You can't tell somebody that it's not happening because, for him, it is," he said. "Instead, maybe you could say something like, 'I understand that you're hearing voices, and it must be very disturbing.'"

Linda Field, president of the NAMI-Howard County board, took the Family to Family course in 1998. Her mother had recently died, making Field responsible for the care of a relative with mental illness.

"I knew nothing," she said.

One of the most valuable lessons was how to deal with mental health professionals and how to choose one.

Field made an appointment to talk with her relative's psychiatrist, and after the meeting she decided to find a new doctor because she was not satisfied with his approach to treatment.

"Somebody needs to be an advocate for a person with mental illness because most of them really aren't able to do it for themselves," she said.

Information: 410-772-9300.

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