Training provides support for family members of mentally ill

Posted: Monday, October 27, 2003

Trish McDonald's daughter has severe manic-depressive disorder, but the disease affects the family, too.

"My marriage was falling apart," said McDonald, who lives in Girdwood and volunteers for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "I was the only one in my family who believed my daughter could survive this."

After several suicide attempts, McDonald's daughter went to a nine-month treatment program in Utah starting in August 2002. But the rest of the family, which needed its own form of treatment, was on its own.

"I was desperately seeking support," said McDonald, who also suffers from bipolar disorder but who had the disease under control at the time.

"When these things happened to my daughter, it triggered things with me," she said.

Families of people affected by mental illnesses are seldom spared from negative reverberations from the disease. To help family members cope, NAMI-Alaska has begun holding "Family to Family" classes around the state.

McDonald was in the first class held in Alaska, and now trains other family members of mentally ill people to teach other courses around Alaska. This weekend, a teacher training was held in Juneau for future Family to Family teachers in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan.

"If you are living with (someone who is mentally ill), chances are you've got issues yourself," said Beth Lacrosse, president of NAMI Alaska.

She and 10 other family members of people with mental illness attended the training, which was sponsored by a grant from the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

"The important thing is to let family members know that they are not alone, they are not to blame," Lacrosse said. "It's a biological disorder of the brain just like there are biological disorders of the heart, liver, kidneys or pancreas."

The Family to Family class, developed by NAMI, is a 12-week, 36-hour course that covers everything related to mental illnesses, or brain disorders, which is NAMI's preferred term for mental illnesses.

The biochemical basis of brain disorders - schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression), clinical depression, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder - is covered in the class, as are different ways family members can maintain their health when dealing with the mental illness of a loved one.

Jola Funderburk works as a nurse at Bartlett Regional Hospital, but she attended the first Family to Family course in Juneau as the sister of someone with a mental illness.

"I learned more about psychological conditions, treatment, advocacy and support in the 12-week class than I learned in nursing school," Funderburk said. "I've learned more useful, applicable information."

After the teacher training, Funderburk and Maria Strafford, another attendee at the training, will organize a second Family to Family class in Juneau.

Family members often are hesitant to attend Family to Family classes, McDonald said.

"Most family members are in shock and denial about it," she said. "It takes a long time for them to realize that (the disease) is not a character flaw."

But the class can save families, said Pat Murphy, clinical director at the Juneau Alliance for the Mentally Ill, which works with NAMI Juneau to provide support and care for people with mental illnesses.

"When you first face this situation a as family, you're pretty unique if you're equipped to deal with what's really a pretty traumatic set of events," he said. "And if there are people around who have been through it, they're able to support you."

• Christine Schmid can be reached at

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