Posts

Readings on Schizophrenia

I have had the pleasure to discover and study some of Dr. Richard Warner’s books (The Environment of Schizophrenia, Social Inclusion of People with Mental Illness and Recovery from Schizophrenia) and they have absolutely changed my outlook on mental illness. My 20-year old son has been diagnosed with schizophrenia two years ago. The following are some of the things I have learned from Dr. Warner’s books:

1. The books have changed my mindset from the start, by stating that 25% of people with schizophrenia actually recover. Many of us know what a cloud of despair can be cast on parents and relatives of schizophrenics. When my son was first diagnosed, I was given sympathetic looks and a list of support groups. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I was told, “Good luck!” Support groups were often equally discouraging. I am sure they can be useful in some situations, but the ones I attended were full of sad people with very few answers, who desperately wanted a way out. The main question was, “How can I – as a parent – survive this?” Many were telling me to put my son in an institution or send him out on his own, but I just couldn’t do it.

Finally, my son had to be hospitalized for a month. Even there, I received no word of hope. The person who was given temporary guardianship of him at that time thought she was being reassuring when she told me that he will most likely relapse and the second time around we will have a better chance to obtain permanent guardianship. And then I read these books. There is a chance my son might recover! Finally, a ray of hope.

2. The second thing that helped me in thee books is the warm and sound approach to recovery. Having lived in many third world countries, I can see how schizophrenics can receive greater social acceptance and more opportunities for work there. Even in Italy (where I was born), medical institutions are far from the cold, sterile approach I found in this country. Here my son has been arrested three times, handcuffed twice, pepper-sprayed once. Most doctors and therapists I have seen have been distant, measuring their words as if they were following a text book. This ordeal has actually drawn me closer to my sister (who lives in Italy) because I have called her at times of crisis, finding comfort and support in the natural motherly wisdom we have both known as children and have tried to apply in our families. These books have helped me to recognize the importance of a warm family environment, which is mentioned but rarely stressed in most publications (where the emphasis seems to fall on medications).

3. I have also appreciated Dr. Warner’s insights on cigarettes and marijuana usage. My son uses both. He started smoking cigarettes at the hospital, where they gave them out like candy. About the marijuana, all the professionals I have seen have warned me that it will have terrible effects or at least will cancel out the medications he is taking. My son told me it’s the only thing that helps him. He says it simplifies his thoughts and, when he uses it, “the voices are not angry anymore.” You may wonder why he still hears voices while he takes medications. I wonder too, and I told the psychiatrist who has made no effort to change her prescription. I suppose she knows what she is doing. My son doesn’t want to change doctors and I am just happy he accepts the medications because initially he didn’t. At any rate, Dr. Warner’s books have relieved my own paranoia about my son’s marijuana usage. Now that I know the sky is not going to fall, I can concentrate on what Dr. Warner advises to do in these cases – in his words, “invest more in those programs that help a person find a place in the world, that help people make friends and fulfill useful social roles.” I have been trying to prevent his boredom, include him in engaging activities (he does pole-vaulting at a local college), encourage situations where he can meet friends, and enroll him in work-training programs sponsored by the Department of Rehab.

There is much more, and I might have to write again at a later time. For now, I am deeply grateful for Dr. Warner’s efforts to bring concrete hope and solutions to patients and their parents.

S.C.

“Shssss……(she said so quietly)……I am on medication!”

She was 17 years old and came by the booth that I was hosting on mental health challenges.   Even before she whispered this to me, she had looked around to make sure no one else was listening.  I leaned in and she told me that she has been living with depression and finally she talked with her mom and found a therapist and therefore the medication.  Her depression had clinging to her spirit weighing her down for a long time.  But now she is engaged with others, a member of a church youth group, and has even had the courage to tell one of her closest friends of her struggles with depression.

I felt privileged that she would talk with me, a stranger, although I was at a church conference and I was at a display on mental health.  She seemed relieved to be able to speak, to name her situation, and to find a listening heart.

There are so many people, including young people, who are living in the shadow of mental health challenges.  They are in our families.  They are in our faith communities.  How can we offer the hospitality of spirit so that the sharing of such stories as the teenagers can be balm for healing and offer hope?

One of the easiest ways is by using caring and compassionate words in a clergy person’s sermons, homilies, or prayers.  While many congregations are not known for such welcoming of naming mental health challenges, they can be.  Using the words, “we pray for those who are living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or major depression,” or “we pray for those who are battling addictions or mental illness,” or “we pray for those who are affected by mental illness, including their families and friends,” can be an open door for people who are living in the isolation of silence and to come out and speak or at least realize they are not alone.

When have you experienced such a welcome?  When has hospitality opened a door for you or someone you love to find a place where their spirit can be at home?  I don’t really know if the 17 year old girl felt better talking with me.  However, I surely did feel connected.  I have found myself telling this story so others may also be attentive to those times when chance encounters can lead to break the silence.  Out of the whisper a truth was spoken that led from vulnerability to strength.

Alan Johnson

 Interfaith Network on Mental Illness

 

Sibling Support – What’s Out There?

As a child growing up I never thought about the concept of needing “support”. I didn’t think about the fact that I didn’t know anyone who was experiencing a lot of the things that I was experiencing in my home. Maybe I did have friends who were also sibs to special needs kids, but if I did, I didn’t know it, because I was not aware that there was a need and so I didn’t talk about it. I was a kid trying to be a kid, plain and simple. I had no idea of the concepts of peer support, the need for validation, or a safe forum to ask questions that I had about my brother’s disability or what it meant for my family, for me, or our future.

It was when I got older, working in the fields of both mental health and developmental disabilities, that I felt a kinship with the siblings, admittedly more so than with the parents of the special needs’ kiddos, or even the person with the special need him or herself. It started to happen naturally, and frequently, that I felt good when I could tell it helped them when I said something that clicked – I would often get a look which I translated as “Oh wow, you understand?, “You get this??”, or “This is comforting”. And then they’d be on their way, or I would … out the door, and then I worried they’d be back in a void; a place where they could not speak openly or feel as heard. At that point I realized my life had been a bit different than my peers and that it sure would have been nice if someone had understood, and that things should change.

I then reached a point in my career where I felt fairly secure or grounded in how I would approach sibs and was lucky enough to make talking to them about these things a small piece of my work. But I also became obsessed with finding out what else was out there. What kinds of groups? Doesn’t anyone else realize this is a need? And I researched. What I found was both thrilling, and disappointing. There is very little available, which saddens me. It is still a field untouched and undiscovered, really. However, I also found The Sibling Support Project, and Don Meyer; someone who not only knew the need very well, but the man who took the extra leap and created the curriculum for Sibshops. Eventually, I took his workshop and now am a facilitator of these Sibshops in Colorado Springs, Colorado. There are many around the world. Below are a couple of links, with explanations of this issue, the need to address it, what Sibshops are, and how to find them. I highly encourage you to surf around, wherever you are. There may be a Sibshop near you, and if not, you may want to make it known to a local organization that you wish there was, and that you would want to partake in that service if it was available. Maybe you want to take the workshop and then facilitate them yourself! It is highly rewarding, FUN, challenging, and affirming.

http://www.siblingsupport.org/
There are so many places to go within this site. If you are a sibling of a special needs’ person, you could be here endlessly. Pay it a visit.

Some options:

You may click on “Sibshops”, then “Find One Near You”, and enter your country and state and see what pops up.

Or click on “Connect With Other Sibs” and find the various stories to read and maybe connect with, and there are also some very active online forums for sibs to join.

There are books under “Publications” (which can be life-changing; one in particular was, for me), or click on “Workshops” to see if a facilitator training is coming to your area.

www.rockymountainsibshops.com
A shameless plug at my own website, should you happen to be in the Pikes Peak region…. Even if you’re not, I invite you to click on “External Links” for some good Youtube videos and recommended publications which might serve you.

I have seen some change in the past year or two. I give most of that credit to Don and The Sibling Support Project, for raising awareness, and to the work of Sibshops’ facilitators in so many communities. It is a healthy start. There is so much need, and so much more room to grow. Please get involved. Chances are if you are reading this blog, you are involved at some level. I hope the importance of sibling support is ringing true with you and that you will seek it in your community and consider getting involved.

Lisa Croce, RN, BSN

www.rockymountainsibshops.com

 

“What We Siblings Have in Common, Besides our Sibs”

We brothers and sisters of people with special needs, whether we are young, old, or somewhere in between, have much in common. Of course we are all individuals and as unique as everyone else on the planet, but there are some general traits and aptitudes that we tend to share. I would sure love to hear back from some of you after reading this blog to learn what you find to be true, how your experiences are different, and what your thoughts are as you read. Are you surprised? Are you validated? Do you get a feeling of “Oh, it’s not just me?”, or are you thinking “Hmmm, I am a sib and this doesn’t describe me at all”. Maybe you see another one of your sibs in some of the phrases. Please feel free to share.

There are three very typical behaviors taken on by children who grow up with a special needs’ sibling. We’ll call them “The Overachiever”, “The Invisible One” and the “Pick Me! Pick Me!”.

The Overachiever: Some sibs (it often happens to be the eldest, though not always) seem to try to overcompensate for the special needs’ siblings by working extra hard in school, being overly helpful in the house, behaving exceptionally well. They see that it is sometimes difficult for their parents to care for their sib, and so they do their part to make things easier. This sounds wonderful, and in many ways is, but hopefully these kids are having fun too, and not growing up too fast. One upshot of being The Overachiever is the good grades which may afford them scholarships and invitations to good colleges and universities.  Another is possibly a lower risk lifestyle and safer adolescence with less chance of experimental drug or alcohol use, or young onset of sexual activity.  The bad news is the self-induced pressure and high standards which might be difficult to maintain, and depressing when they can’t be lived up to. This is still a child we are talking about, after all.

The “Invisible One”: For the same reasons as The Overachiever, The Invisible One just figures if they fly below the radar it will make their parents’ lives easier.  They may, unfortunately, be feeling an absence of attention from their parents since much of their focus is on the special needs’ sib, and so they feel a bit invisible, and then simply behave in a way that lives up to that persona. They’re not getting into lots of trouble, or failing in school, yet they’re not stand-outs either! They simply go along, hardly recognized, and are sometimes referred to as  “easy” children. The good news, again, is possibly lower risk behavior, getting into very little trouble at home and in school. The bad news is maybe these children are not living up to their fullest potentials, or as happy and fulfilled as they could be. Maybe they want more out of life, or from their parents, but do not seek it because this would certainly make them visible.

The “Pick Me! Pick me!”: Oh boy, this can be a fun child. Often described as precocious, incorrigible, one who stands out from the rest of the family, or simply –   trouble, this child wants to be noticed and plain refuses to be ignored! They may at times realize their parents’ attention is being directed to where it needs to be, and simultaneously feel badly or guilty for interrupting that, however, they also feel a compulsion to be noticed; to want to be “picked”. The good news is that they are strong-willed, which is a quality helpful in later life in terms of assertiveness and getting their needs met. It may, in fact, gain them the attention from their parents that they need. It gets them noticed alright! The downside is that they sometimes don’t mind if it entails breaking the law, doing badly in school, acting out at home. They simply WILL be noticed.

Of course all kids, regardless of whether or not they have a sibling who has special needs, may fit into one of those three types, or another type. In addition, so many other factors in a person’s life affect their coping styles, including whether or not they are from a two-parent household, examples set for them, birth order, etc. The point is there are surely some general commonalities, and I point them out because it can be enlightening for a sib to know this, and to determine or gain some insight as to why they behave the way they do or became the way they are. I was a “Pick Me” kid and I did not end up in jail. I did, however, give my parents a run for their money. I think, and sure hope, that now they would be proud of the way I’ve turned out. I mention this to point out that it is not always a negative thing. Kids learn to cope in various ways. It just is what it is.

Special needs’ sibs learn and experience their family life in ways that most kids don’t. Empathy is often a lovely outcome. Most sibs are not only compassionate, but are also quite open-minded and tolerant of people who aren’t “typical” in myriad of ways. They don’t tolerate bullying. A high percentage of sibs grow up to find themselves in the helping professions (nurses, teachers, therapists, physicians, etc). I think sibs are special and make the world a better place. It is my hope that you will communicate with each other, meet each other, find support and understanding in each other, thereby creating a better understanding within yourself, and feel less alone in the world. In my next blog I will discuss the current available supports to encourage this. Please stay tuned and consider reaching out.

Lisa Croce, RN, BSN

www.rockymountainsibshops.com

 

“What About Those Siblings?”

An often overlooked demographic, siblings of people affected by mental illness, are typically the longest living relatives, and potential caregivers or pillars of support for people with serious mental illness, as well as other disabilities. Despite this fact, and due to varying factors, this population is the least likely to receive support, education, assistance, or even a forum to openly discuss their concerns, worries, questions. Change is occurring, but all too slowly.

Many years ago, even parents were not provided adequate support for their children’s diagnoses. That has certainly evolved. There are many parents’ groups now and educational resources in print as well as online. It is immediately recognized these days that when a child is diagnosed with any type of disability, it involves the family, and providers march into action to address concerns with the parents. The siblings, however? Very seldom, even now in 2013, are the siblings’ needs thought of, mentioned, addressed. This is changing. Slowly. Very slowly.

As a person who was a sibling to a brother with a significant disability, I always knew something was missing in terms of support. I worried. I wondered. I worried and wondered silently. My parents did the best they knew how to do, and actually did it quite well. Most of their time was, of course, spent caring for my brother. Rightly so, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We sisters knew to not add to their distress by asking too many questions, adding to their tensions by letting them know of our concerns. There were times I was too embarrassed to have friends to my house after school because his behavior was odd. I did not understand. I felt tremendous guilt for feeling that way. I said nothing about any of it.  There was absolutely no one who I could talk to. Who would’ve understood? As I look back I realize there were probably friends at school who had siblings with a disability, and maybe I could have spoken with them, but how would I have known who those students were? It sure would have been nice to connect with them – with someone.

One of the reasons that siblings have not been well included in the conversations over the years is simply that parents were/are trying to protect the sibs. They often feel it is their burden and do not want to share that with the sibs. Parents are intrinsically assigned to protect their children, after all. The intention is truly good. Another factor is that they just do not know how much to say, exactly what to say and not say, and are often thrown off by various ages of the kids and who should be told what!

The good news: A huge percentage of siblings of people with special needs grow up to be amazingly empathetic people themselves, are less likely to bully or tolerate bullying, and often mature into contributing via their careers in the helping professions. It is good to remember that there are joys as well as concerns that result from being a sib.

I plan to write blogs pertaining to the following specific topics: current available supports, one on nothing but the joys, one about shared concerns regarding who is to help out after the parents die, typical traits and common concerns of the sibs, one on statistics, one for the parents on best ways to communicate with the sibs, and so forth. With opens ears and arms I welcome your suggestions. SIBLINGS – what do you want to talk about?

In closing this initial sib-focused blog, I just want to say that as a mental health nurse working with people dealing with all sorts of illness and disability for my entire career, the siblings and I have always resonated, and my brother’s biggest gift to me was the compassion, empathy, and connection that was instilled in me to share with you. You are not alone. I hope you find the solace and sense of understanding, even belonging, that is here for you.

Lisa Croce, RN, BSN

www.rockymountainsibshops.com

To post a response to this blog please visit The Recovery Trust.

The Recovery Trust, a Colorado-based nonprofit, has added a new resource for families in need of education and support. It is a free, secure, online forum through which family members can join with others in the same situation.

The forum is moderated by a team of mental health professionals, psychiatrists, family members and people who have experienced mental illness, all of whom have received extensive training in their role as facilitators. Users of the forum can access a large database of information about these illnesses, FAQs and links to other resources.

Words matter: How should we talk about mental illness?

“So, I am thinking about how to talk about my….well….my, you know, my mental illness. I mean, my brain disorder. Well, I don’t know how to describe what it is.”

Words do matter and how we talk about what we experience is important. It may be that through the years a person’s symptoms have led to a diagnosis, one that is listed in the DSM-IV. When that becomes clearer, or clear enough, there are ways for these symptoms to be treated, usually by a combination of medications and programs. The major “s” listed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness are schizoaffective disorder, autism spectrum disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic and anxiety disorders, and borderline personality disorder.

One of the lively conversations today is around how to talk about these illnesses. “Mental Illness is an illness like any other” is a phrase we have heard. However, that does underestimate the way that most illnesses can be determined. Diabetes or cancer or heart disease are measurable, based on biological data. “Mental” illnesses are not yet in that category. We go on symptoms, as mentioned above, and we don’t have a brain scan at this time to indicate why these symptoms occur. While treatable, the causes of mental illnesses are not completely known.

Still, there are many who say that mental illnesses are physical disabilities. They are biologically based and arise in some way from the brain. Therefore, we use the medical model of treatment. “Here are the medications to try in order to alleviate the ‘illness.’” This understanding has at least one enormous benefit. It may reduce the stigma that is present around “mental illness.” What has been known as “mental” illnesses can now be called “brain disorders.” It sounds less stigmatizing, removes the burdens of blame for what causes these symptoms, and can empower those who are living with the shadow of self-recrimination to speak and act more openly in society. Living into that reality, however, still leaves more work to be done. Some people think the word “disorder” is too clinical and medical.

For instance, when I mentioned that I had been using the words “brain disorder” to describe my son’s mental illness, bipolar disorder, it was very clear to him that this is was not the way that he wanted me to talk about this part of his condition. He said just use “bipolar.” I sincerely apologized because I had not asked him before, and I felt that I had used words that were inappropriate. He is an adult who is fully alive, filled with honed wisdom, has a creative wit, and I deeply love him. He was direct in pointing out that I had erred in his case.

Language can be tricky. It can elucidate things or muddy things. So what can we do? Keep on keeping on working on language seeking to describe how things are. It will not be perfect since someone will always come up with an “on the other hand” perspective on what you are seeking to make general and universal. Now I have come to understand even better from my son that perhaps the best thing is to talk with the person who is affected by a “mental illness” or a “brain disorder” or “depression” or “bipolar” or whatever to see how they see it themselves. This is all about relationships anyway. Connecting with someone who is affected by mental illness/brain disorder/etc. may reveal something new and fresh in our own understanding and therefore lessen our perplexity and confusion about our use of language.

Alan Johnson,

Interfaith Network on Mental Illness and Caring Clergy Project

To post a response to this blog please visit The Recovery Trust.

The Recovery Trust, a Colorado-based nonprofit, has added a new resource for families in need of education and support. It is a free, secure, online forum through which family members can join with others in the same situation.

The forum is moderated by a team of mental health professionals, psychiatrists, family members and people who have experienced mental illness, all of whom have received extensive training in their role as facilitators. Users of the forum can access a large database of information about these illnesses, FAQs and links to other resources.

The Stigma Inside Us

We grow up surrounded by a cultural myth – the stereotype of the person with mental illness. Our news media and daytime TV shows portray people with mental illness as violent criminals or, at best, figures of fun. Not so long ago, I saw a realtor’s ad in a local newspaper headed “Driven Crazy by Your Housing?” that illustrated the message with a snarling face with bulging eyes, wild hair and distorted features. Community surveys reveal that people think of people with mental illness as always being unable to make any rational decisions, incapable, unpredictable and worthless.  A 1960s American survey concludes that they are viewed by the public with “fear, distrust and dislike.” In short, “all things bad.”  Since then, there hasn’t been much, if any, improvement.

This stereotype leads on to all kinds of misconceptions about mental illness. Half the people answering a public survey in Britain in the 1990s thought that setting fire to public buildings was a “very likely” consequence of mental illness. American surveys of the same period found that the majority of the public blamed mental illness on “lack of discipline,” and believed that people with mental illness were more responsible for their condition than were people with AIDS or the obese or any other stigmatized group. Worse still, people with mental illness themselves, and their family members share these misconceptions. When I was involved in a global anti-stigma project a few years ago, we conducted a survey of family members in Madrid. It showed that more than half felt that people with schizophrenia should not be allowed to study, drive a car or have children.

So, growing up in a world where everyone accepts this myth and shares these misconceptions, what would your reaction be if someone were to tell you that you suffer from mental illness? If you have an ounce of dignity, it would be, “No, not me. I’m nothing like that.” And, of course, you would be right. No-one is like that. But it may take you a lot of time and effort to get past the stereotype, see the illness for what it is, an illness, and see yourself again for the responsible and capable person you are. Your first impulse would be to say it can’t be true.

I was lucky enough to hear Pete Earley talk in Boulder recently.  He is the author of Crazy, an account of what he learned about the US mental health treatment system after his son, Mike, developed a serious mental illness. In a recent blog, he writes about trying to understand why his son didn’t want to take medication for his mental illness. One day, he asked Mike to explain to him, in writing, why this was such a struggle. Mike writes:

Denial was a strong factor in my understanding and even when evidence of my own madness would be presented, my mind would find a way to weave out of the circumstance and an obtuse reasoning would somehow form that would keep my own pride intact. Always two steps ahead of the truth, my brain would tap dance its way into a room where I was not at fault, where it was everybody else versus me, where I was some sort of prophet or special medium who was undergoing visions, not hallucinations, and I was important, not a victim.

It is very hard to understand that one’s own credibility is broken. There is a lot of personal shame one undergoes when they realize that they are no longer in line with society’s understanding of sane. It makes one doubt one’s own instincts and second guess the movements and decisions that one makes. Suddenly, the veil of confidence and ability has been lifted and one is a wreck, struggling to piece together the remnants of what are left of one’s self image.

I learn a lot from my son, Pete Earley concludes. One lesson he has taught me is that taking anti-psychotic medication is much more complicated than being told by your doctor that you have high cholesterol.

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

You can read his entire blog here: Why Won’t You Take Your Mediation 

Denial is a major consequence of the stigma of mental illness that we all carry within us, but when denial gives way to acceptance and shame, there’s a lot more trouble in store.

People who accept the label of mental illness take on a burden. They can see themselves as incapable and worthless. Out of a sense of shame they may withdraw socially from their friends, give up on their careers, academic or marriage plans and, viewing themselves as hopeless cases, become dependent on their treatment providers and others in their lives.

Consequently, the person with “insight” into his illness may do less well than expected while those who reject the label of mental illness are more likely to hold on to their ambitions and try to forge ahead with their lives.

We conducted a study a few years ago in Boulder, Colorado, that showed this to be true – that people who accept the label of mental illness and hold stigmatizing beliefs about it tend to feel  dis-empowered and worthless and don’t do as well as they might.

There are several other studies now that point to the same problem. Insight coupled with a sense of shame about the diagnosis leads to hopelessness, avoiding social contacts and poor self-esteem. Internalized stigma, it seems, undermines the possibility that insight will lead to recovery.

Mental health professionals have long been trained to help their clients develop insight and to accept their illnesses. It seems, however, that there are two other elements that are vital to recovery that are much less likely to be emphasized in training – empowerment and reducing internalized stigma.

On the road to recovery, people with mental illness need to find the information that will help them shake off the stigma, stereotypes and misconceptions that come with the label of mental illness and to access advocacy to combat discrimination. They need to be treated with the respect that will allow them to retain a sense of dignity and to be provided with opportunities for advancement that will show them that they are masters of their own destiny.

Mental Illness: The Last Stigma

When I entered medical school over 40 years ago we were taught never to say the word “cancer” in front of a patient. The stigma was so great that patients were often allowed to die not knowing what their diagnosis was. The obituary never named the illness.

The same was true of “schizophrenia.” You just didn’t mention it.

Since those days we have shaken off the stigma that cancer carried. People talk about their illness and its treatment openly and get support and information from all sides. We learn about the illness daily from the media.

The same thing has not happened with schizophrenia and other psychotic illness. The stigma of serious mental illness still permeates the fabric of our society.

Most of us know someone close to us, a relative or a friend, who has experienced a psychotic disorder, though, of course, we may not have been told about the problem at the time it was occurring out of a sense of shame or not wanting to hurt the feelings of the person with the illness. But few of us know much about the nature of these illnesses – the causes, the symptoms of the various disorders, the possible outcomes and how to respond to the person with the illness.

It’s not that people don’t want to know. For some years, when I worked at the public mental health center in Boulder we would regularly teach about mental illness in the community. We would talk to the police and judges, who often meet people with mental illness during their working day, and get to answer their many detailed questions.  We would go into high schools with some of our clients who had experienced psychotic illness and have them tell their stories. The students would be on the edge of their seats, filled with obvious interest and empathy.

In the debate on gun control, there is an emerging consensus on one point. The senate and the president agree that we should educate teachers about mental illness. Good idea! But why just teachers? What about their students – the next generation of adult citizens? Many of them are living with someone with a mental illness. Some will develop a mental illness. More will become parents of someone with a mental illness.

We don’t teach about these conditions in school on a regular basis. It is not reliably part of the psychology curriculum. The health curriculum in my local school district is a wonderful program for teaching citizenship skills and how to lead a full and productive life, but it contains nothing about serious mental illness.

The result of this lack of education is that our citizens grow up not being able to recognize the onset of disabling mental disorders in their own children, not knowing what treatments are possible and what benefits they can bring. Often families find out what they needed to know years after the problems develop, and even then, they may not be able to access the information that could help them. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and its many chapters across the US has proven to be a wonderful resource for families in this situation. Their Family to Family program, through which trained family members teach courses for other families on what they need to know about recognizing and managing these illnesses, has been shown to be effective in improving outcome for people with schizophrenia and similar disorders and has become a model for the world.

The Recovery Trust, a Colorado-based nonprofit, has added a new resource for these families in need of education and support. It is a free, secure, online forum through which family members can join with others in the same situation.

The forum is moderated by a team of mental health professionals, psychiatrists, family members and people who have experienced mental illness, all of whom have received extensive training in their role as facilitators. Users of the forum can access a large database of information about these illnesses, FAQs and links to other resources.

The forum provides a vital new opportunity for support and education for families and friends of people with mental illness who live in outlying areas of the state where there may be few other resources. We expect that it will be helpful for people who can’t get to support groups because of distance, work or other factors.

To enroll as a user of the forum visit here.You can preserve your anonymity.

The forum is a resource for a people who urgently need information about mental illness. But we must move beyond this and look at how we can educate our young citizens so that this important knowledge is disseminated throughout our society like other vital health information. Including some information in high school health curricula would be an excellent place to start.