Merlene Davis: NAMI class helps families support mentally ill loved ones, themselves

We often hear about the "holiday blues," a condition some people experience around this time of year.

Usually the blues are a sense of sadness that is temporary and caused by stress, loneliness or an inability to meet society's ideal of a joyous holiday celebration.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes that for those with a diagnosed mental illness, however, the holidays can make their condition worse. NAMI urges friends and family to "reach out and watch out for each other in keeping with the spirit of the season."

I agree, but that raises a couple of questions for me: How do we know when "down-in-the-dumps," as my mother called the blues, is something more? And exactly how do you reach out without making matters worse?

Tracy Jacobson, director of family services for NAMI Lexington, said if the "blues" persist for more than a couple of weeks, the person might need to seek help.

"There are different levels of severity and different stages of recovery," she said. "There is no one-size-fits-all method for success."

Treatment usually starts with the primary care physician and then moves to a psychiatrist if the condition warrants it.

I was glad to read a recent column by my colleague Paul Prather, a minister in Mount Sterling, urging fellow ministers to encourage parishioners to seek professional help as they would with any illness.

"If you're genuinely depressed, then determination, Bible reading, positive thinking and prayer might not help much. You probably need enlightened treatment from a mental health professional," he wrote.

A study NAMI quotes found that a diagnosis could take as long as 10 years and three therapists, Jacobson said. And mental illnesses are very difficult conditions to have, Jacobson said.

"It takes a long time to get a diagnosis and then a long time to get medication that works. It is trial and error. There is no absolute."

Fortunately, thousands and thousands of people have successfully navigated that maze and are productive friends, family members and church goers. "The brain can get ill just like any other organ of the body," Jacobson said.

And it can regain a healthy functionality.

Which brings me to my second question: How do the rest of us support our friends and family members without making things worse? How do we put the puzzle pieces together to create a new family portrait and new family dynamic?

NAMI Lexington offers a Family-to-Family Education Course, which is an 11-week series to help school friends and relatives in relating to individuals with a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness.

The course touches on the signs and symptoms of various illnesses, the biology and research of brain disorders, and the available medications and treatment techniques. Current information about a wide range of illnesses is discussed including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders.

The materials also offer means of communicating with the relative better, problem-solving skills and empathy, Jacobson said.

"Family members learn symptoms of the illness that are truly symptom-related (to the disease) and not the person choosing to behave this way," she said. "Ultimately, after taking the class, people report feeling more empowered and more at peace. Their relationships improve with their relatives."

Special emphasis is also placed on self-care, Jacobson said. Too often friends, relatives or caregivers focus so much on the individual with mental illness that they neglect their own well-being. Take time for yourself. Relax. Do something you enjoy doing again.

The class gives participants a chance to understand others are in the same position, and they learn to adjust their expectations.

"One of the values of the class is sharing," she said. "Serious mental illness affects 1 in 17 people. Once you can understand and can tolerate the behavior, and once you change your expectations, everything together improves the relationship," she said.

That understanding, that acceptance, opens the door so that a helping hand is better received. And when one family member is given the necessary tools, wisdom, and collective experience to know how to mitigate difficult scenarios, he or she can pass that knowledge on to others.

That works throughout the year when the relative may have ups and downs. The need for support doesn't stop after New Year's Day. Knowledge helps relatives reclaim their lives as a family.

The Family-to-Family class starts Jan. 14 in Lexington, and meets for 11 Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Pre-registration is required. The class and all class materials are free. Space is limited.

If you can't make this class, there will be two more held in the coming year. After taking one of them, you will be better prepared to help not only during the next "holiday blues" season, but all year round.