Class on Mental Illness Helps Families Recover

Helene Miller

Helene Miller


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Every family has that thing. Some would call it a secret, but it’s simply called life to the members of the family. For some families that “thing” is mental illness.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness developed the Family-to-Family Education Program to provide information and support for the families and friends of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. For over 10 years the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County has been providing this class to area families, and it has just started its fall session, according to Amie Chajka, director of community relations.

As the name of the program impies, Cajka said all the instructors of the class are people who have taken the class in the past and have been trained on the curriculum. This isn’t a class for the person with the illness. It is strictly for the people that care about them.

She went on to explain that the 12-week program helps people to understand the mental illness their loved ones suffer from. It also offers coping mechanisms and creates an outlet for open discussion.

“[The program] helps them function from a position of strength and knowledge,” Chajka said.

She said some people come to the class having never talked to anyone about their loved one’s mental illness. Cajka recalls one woman who’s mother had suffered a mental illness and had died years prior to the woman’s involvement in the class. The woman still had questions because she had never had the chance to speak about it.

She said that often times recovery doesn’t happen for these people because they have no one to talk to, and through this class, they find out they aren’t alone.

Suzanne Ludwick, a current instructor for the class, emphasizes the hope that the Family-to-Family Program brings to its participants. She feels that NAMI has given people a gift by providing the class for free to all moms, dads, husbands, girlfriends, sisters, etc. who are coping with a love one’s mental illness.

Ludwick thinks most of the negative stigma surrounding mental illness comes from misinformation. It’s often equated with retardation or “crazy,” but it is so much more than that.

She decided to teach the class after taking it to help increase knowledge and continue the support system Family-to-Family has established in Portage County. She refers to teaching the class as a blessing, and she just can’t say no when they ask her to do it, especially after knowing the understanding she gained about her daughter through taking the class.

Ludwick admits that she has nights when she just feel rundown and wants to go home but feels compelled to go to class, and she never regrets it.

“I always feel empowered, revived and energized when I leave the class,” Ludwick said.

She also explained that the difference between traditional counseling and the Family-to-Family Program. Counseling focused on her – her emotions, her life and how she was coping. Family-to-Family focuses on understanding the mental illness and learning how to cope with the new challenges it brings. Most importantly, Ludwick said it focused on the relationship she has with her daughter.

“I didn’t get the white picket fence, and she wasn’t a ballerina,” Ludwick said. “But, she’s way above that and way more than any of that…She’s living a rich, full life. It’s her dream, not my dream.”

Ludwick tells her classes that she can’t promise a happy ending, but that she hopes they will be able to learn to connect with their loved ones. Ludwick said she has seen a lot of people really get better throughout the 12-week program. Even the seemingly standoffish dads end up being some of the biggest speakers in the class. It really does create a support system for participants to lean on.

“Everybody just becomes one,” Ludwick said. “I think that’s why it’s called Family-to-Family. This family comes from here, that family comes from there, and we all become one family.”

For information about the Family-to-Family Program and other related services, please contact the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Portage County at 330-673-1756