Erasing the Stigma

November 1, 2019 | by stephanie hobby

Learning that your child has a disorder is never easy, but a few things set a mental illness diagnosis apart from other ailments. Despite all of the recent advancements in awareness, stigmas persist about mental illness, and family members might be reluctant to talk about it. Parents can feel tempted to blame themselves or question whether they did anything to cause the illness. Finally, it’s not often an obvious condition, and acquaintances and friends won’t know what’s happening unless they’re told. Because it’s largely experienced in silence, overwhelming isolation can set in, compounding already challenging circumstances.

But there is reason for hope.

While families affected by mental illness might feel alone, the reality is that one in five Montana families will face that scenario. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is working to change stigmas, bring families out of isolation, and find long-term working solutions. As the largest grassroots mental health organization in the nation, with nine chapters in Montana, NAMI helps families navigate the journey in a supportive group setting. NAMI Billings opened its doors in 1995 and is dedicated to education, advocacy, and support groups.

Fay* is a volunteer teacher with NAMI, and knows firsthand the isolation and confusion that comes with parenting a child with mental illness. "With cancer, you have doctors, case managers, friends, and family who are familiar and comfortable in their knowledge of cancer. There's no stigma attached to diseases like that, but with mental illness, I feel it's isolating. It's not something you share with your neighbor, and nobody brings you a casserole and says, 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' Yet, the symptoms of mental illness can be lifelong, debilitating, and isolating,” says Fay.

Fay found a lifeline in NAMI Billings six years ago while struggling to find resources for her teenager, who had not yet been diagnosed. She enrolled in the NAMI Basics class and immediately realized that she had a powerful ally in other parents and caregivers who had gone before her. It opened up a world of resources, and she gained a much-needed sense of relief. The Basics course starts with an overview of the biology of mental illness and assures families that mental illness is no one's fault.

The Basics class is a free, six-week group education program for parents and family caregivers of children and teens who are either experiencing symptoms or have already been diagnosed. Program topics include problem-solving, effective communication, the importance of self-care, stress management, how to compassionately support your child, the different types of mental health care professionals, treatment and therapy options, and preparing for and responding to crises.

Program leaders emphasize the importance of seeking help early. According to NAMI, mental illness often begins in childhood; 50 percent of all lifetime cases begin by the time a child is 14. Additionally, HIPPA laws kick in when the child turns 18, and at that point, the parental role as an advocate for their child is drastically minimized.

While Fay found a trove of knowledge, she wasn’t able to adequately share it with her husband, as they couldn’t leave their teenager unsupervised. He stayed home while Fay went to class, and when she got home, they would review what she learned. 

Realizing that childcare is a barrier to class participation, NAMI Billings has formed a partnership with the Family Tree Center to offer meals and care for children while their parents attend the Basics class. There is no cost, either for childcare, children’s meals, or the classes, due to grants awarded by the Breakfast Exchange Club, the First Presbyterian Church, and Lucky’s Bags for Change Program.

Holly Sessoms, Programs and Development Coordinator of NAMI Billings, says the courses will be offered regularly for the foreseeable future. "This is a life-long illness, so it's important that we offer a private, safe place for people to gather and discuss how to manage these disorders. With our partnership with the Family Tree Center, and the generous grants we've received, we're excited about what we can offer to our community, completely free of charge," Sessoms said.

Fay said her family has received so much help from the program, and she's delighted to be a part of educating and encouraging those who come after her. "It takes courage to live with mental illness. You are different. I think you know you're different. I think your classmates know you're different, and I think you want to be like everyone else, of course when you're young, and you're not. So our goal is to give parents some skills to help their kids with that," Fay said.

If you are interested in learning more about NAMI Billings or enrolling in a class, visit www.NAMIBillings.org or call the office at (406) 256-2001. A Basics class is underway this fall, but coordinators expect to offer a spring session, so if you’re interested, you can call the office to ask about enrollment for upcoming sessions.

*Name has been changed for privacy

Originally printed in the November 2019 issue of Simply Family Magazine

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