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May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  If your loved one is diagnosed with mental illness, would you know where you and your family could go to learn about the illness and how to be of help to that person?

When I was a med-surg nurse and encountered questions about living with a mental illness, I didn’t know how to respond. Half way through my forty-year career, armed with a new master’s in psychiatric nursing, I began teaching mental health nursing to senior baccalaureate students. As I was planning community support groups they could attend, I stumbled upon NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. And I’ve been hooked on their mission ever since. As their publication, NAMI Advocate, says, “NAMI is…the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness.”

The Spring 2011 issue of NAMI Advocate features an interview with Dr. Joyce Burland, founder of NAMI’s Family to Family education program. Finding a lack of informational resources when her sister became mentally ill, she, as a PhD in clinical psychology, discovered and got involved in NAMI. In the interview, among many misconceptions people have about mental illness, she adds, “Mental illness is the illness where you never get a covered dish” (p. 15).

I stopped short when I read this quote. How true! Friends come running over with dinners when you have a baby or have your gall bladder out or have ongoing chemo or radiation treatments. But, mostly due to the stigma of mental illness, persons and families living with mental illness often suffer in isolation. “Don’t tell anyone at church that you saw me here,” I remember one of many patients saying when I was with my students on a psychiatric ward. “I don’t want anyone to know.”

The Family to Family program was set up to have families help other families. Family members are trained to be the teachers of the 12-week education course. Burland says, “There is a huge amount of information, generally unknown to those outside of this experience, about things we found that will help us in this struggle” (p. 15).

A friend of mine, Barbara Doyle, has co-taught the Family to Family course many times and has trained teachers.  She’s been a member of NAMI since 1983, and, among other offices held, she’s also a past president of NAMI Illinois. She sent me a few responses from course participants. One response summarizes them well: “I have benefited immensely. [The course] educated me about mental health disorders. More significantly (for me) is being sensitized and empathetic to the individuals in my life.”

And that’s what we need in the U.S. from all of us—to get the facts and to become sensitive to and empathic toward families and persons living with mental illness. These are essential first steps to erasing stigma.  Seeking out NAMI and what they have to offer is a good place to start.

Note their national convention meets in Chicago from July 6-9, 2011, at the Chicago Hilton on south Michigan Ave. Come, empower yourself to join the fight against stigma. Plus, take a run along the lake in the morning, loiter over a latte at a street-side cafe, and enjoy my city!