Story last updated at 2/13/2013 - 2:47 pm
When you are the executive director of an organization, obviously it would behoove you to be good at directing. But when you're directing a branch of an organization whose mission is sensitive: to provide support, education and advocacy to those experiencing mental illnesses, it also behooves you have a capacity beyond empathy, one that allows you to be sympathetic.
Dov Gartenburg, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Health Juneau is just that.
"There's a story," he said. "I had been involved in NAMI in Seattle, because I have two children struggling with mental illnesses, who are both doing very well now. At that the time it was very difficult."
Gartenburg attended a NAMI support group for family members while he was living in Seattle.
"They were tremendously helpful in understanding the issues and resources that might be available for my family," he said.
Gartenburg moved to Juneau in 2011 and was recruited, with his wife, to help lead a similar support group offered in Juneau, the Juneau Family Support Group.
"We were invited to lead it as adults who have loved ones with mental illness, as peers not as professionals, because we were familiar with mental illnesses on a personal level," he said.
Gartenburg and his wife led the support group for a year. In the fall of 2012, the executive director position at NAMI was vacated.
"I thought 'Yes,' he said. "This is a cause that I very much believe in."
He applied and received the position, beginning his post that fall. It is his first position outside the congregation rabbinate, which he has been serving, and continues to do so, since 1981.
Besides the support group and a host of various other programs, NAMI offers a 10-week class, twice a year, for family members of someone who experiences mental illness, including but not limited to schizophrenia, major depression, post traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders. The class curriculum is developed at a national level by mental health professionals, and updated with current research data. The next class will begin Feb. 27.
"The people teaching it are trained to teach it; trained peers," Gartenburg said. "Maybe someone who took it in the past, familiar with mental illness through personal experience, or someone trained with the curriculum to teach the material. If you're talking about schizophrenia for instance, a layperson is presenting the curriculum that has had personal experience with mental illness. That's the key. It's really a peer organization; (NAMI) was founded as a peer organization."
Gartenburg said it has been estimated that one of four people have, at some point in their lives, suffered from a mental illness. He said the class can serve as a unique potential bind between people who have a loved one with mental illness, and the power of the class lies in these connections. A person experiencing mental illness can go to a trained professional and receive treatment, but support is a key element in care, which the class seeks to address.
"The class provides a lot of current information about diagnoses, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, panic disorders, OCD, co-occurring brain disorders and addictive disorders," Gartenburg said. "It's a catchment for a lot of people who are going through different things."
The course curriculum covers information about how to handle relapses or other types of crises and how to develop strategies for reducing stress and developing coping skills. It also covers resource information, like how to locate appropriate support and services in the Juneau area, as well as promote advocacy and address gaps in treatment possibilities. Another useful component of the curriculum covers medications, their side effects and strategies for medication adherence.
"I know from personal experience that people (may) go through a phase where they say 'I don't want this medication anymore,' and they go off it," Gartenburg said. "So often family members are in a difficult position to encourage their family member to stay with their medication. This can be a common reason why people come to support groups or a class like this. That's a very typical issue that we see."
The course beginning this month will be taught by Sharron Lobaugh and Rachael Ireton. Lobaugh has been teaching the course around once a year for the last 15 years.
"It's exciting because it gets even better every time we have a new group of people," Lobaugh said. "Mental illness is pretty common and we have quite a few people who take it every year. (But) for some people it's like a lot of things; you don't need it until you need it."
Lobaugh also has a personal relationship to the subject material.
"I have a son who has had mental illness now for 20 years," she said. "He's doing very well but there were periods of time when he had to be hospitalized, so I recognized I needed information and the only way to really gain it is through a class that's educational."
Lobaugh said universities have verified the class as an effective tool in reducing hospitalization for people who experience mental illnesses. She said the curriculum was developed around 20 years ago at Columbia University, is taught all over the nation and is revised to incorporate new research data, diagnostic and rehabilitation information.
"It's pretty strict in its curriculum but flexible because people's experience comes into this discussion so there's a lot of exchange and support among the participants," she said.
One of Lobaugh's hopes is to offer the course in other locations throughout Southeast Alaska. In order to do so, instructors have to be adequately trained. Later this month, Lobaugh will be traveling to Petersburg to instruct a 15 and a half hour teacher-training course over three days. Lobaugh said people form Haines, Hoonah and Gustavus have asked for the teacher-training course as well.
"As soon as we can, if we hear from people who are interested in becoming teachers, we can start training other people in those other communities," she said.
The Family-to-Family Education Program will begin on Wednesday, Feb. 27. The course will be held at the VA Domiciliary, 3001 C Street. The classes will be held weekly from 6-8:30 p.m. To register or for more information call 272-0227. Family members of veterans are encouraged to attend, by contacting Dr. Camilla Madden at 257-4854.
The weekly Juneau Family Support Group runs in eight-week rotations, the next one beginning on Thursday, Feb. 28, at the Congregation Sukkat Shalom, 211 Cordova Street, from 7-8 p.m. The support group is free.
For information on the support group or for how to receive Family-to-Family teacher training in your community, contact Dov Gartenburg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 463-4251.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.