Story last updated at 1/14/2009 - 1:38 pm
JUNEAU - After Pat Dobbins' mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, she traveled to Alabama for a week or two each year to relieve her sister of caretaking. When she asked her sister what else she could do to help, she was advised to get involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Ever since, Dobbins has been using her experiences to help others. She is one of the instructors for the Family to Family program offered by NAMI beginning Feb. 11-12.
"I wish (Family to Family) had been around when I was growing up," she said.
The 12-week program is geared towards anyone who interacts regularly with individuals with mental illnesses. The program was initially designed for families of those with mental illnesses but has since expanded its reach to friends, coworkers and professionals.
Sharron Lobaugh, who has a son with autism and mental illness, founded NAMI-Juneau in the 80's. She has been a part of the Family to Family program since it began in Juneau six years ago.
"It's probably the most important thing I do - share with others the lessons I've learned," Lobaugh said. "I know how valuable the information is. It would be something that you would really pay dearly to get - but it's free."
The Family to Family class covers diagnoses, medication, communication and advocacy. The classes last one and a half hours and meet one day a week for twelve weeks. Mental illnesses discussed include schizophrenia, major depression and mania, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. There are no requirements for the class except a commitment to participate and do some reading and homework between classes.
One of the strengths of Family to Family is that the instructors have personal experience to draw upon in helping the participants, Lobaugh said.
"If you've had this experience you're more likely to sympathize with others," she said. "The exchange that goes on between people is really important."
The program has attracted a wide range of participants. Anyone could be affected by this "equal opportunity" illness, Lobaugh said.
"Mental illness, statistically, does hit everyone equally," she said.
Many mental illnesses go undiagnosed. The class may be helpful for those worried about a family member, even if a mental illness has not yet been diagnosed.
"It's just wonderful when people with a mental illness find an appropriate diagnosis, therapy and medication," Lobaugh said.
NAMI began as an organization to serve families, but it has grown to serve those with mental illnesses themselves and to act as a national advocacy group for legislation affecting those with mental illnesses.
"The family is the primary support for a person with a mental illness," said Aaron Hozid, executive director of NAMI-Juneau. "Family members (participating in NAMI programs) save themselves going through incredible amounts of stress."
The last class in the program addresses advocacy issues and fighting stigmas against mental illnesses.
"The stigma attached to mental illness is so grave that people are sometimes afraid to deal with it all," Hozid said.
NAMI program participants have come to Juneau from other communities and there are NAMI affiliates in Ketchikan and Sitka. There are trained Family to Family instructors in Hoonah and Kake as well.
"One of our objectives is to strengthen our role as a hub in Southeast," Hozid said.
In Juneau, there are around 20 volunteers working to put programs like Family to Family together, including eight trained instructors.
Organizers especially hope to reach families with teenage children. Many mental illnesses first manifest themselves in the late teens and early twenties, but it can be much more difficult for families to help their children after they turn 18.
"There could be at least 100 families a year (in Juneau) who are newly experiencing this," Hozid said. "Anyone who has a seriously emotionally disturbed child should be in touch with us."
NAMI-Juneau will be offering two evening Family to Family Classes beginning in February. One class will begin Feb. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at the Parkshore Condominium Clubhouse (800 F Street) and the other will begin Feb. 12 at 6:30 p.m. on the UAS campus in room 211 in Egan Library.