Pro Tips: Top 10 things to know about mental illness

This week's pro tips are from Gwen Preheim-Bartel of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Elkhart County. She is the program coordinator for a class run by the organization that teaches people to understand, support and aid loved ones with mental illnesses.

Posted on Feb. 21, 2014 at 11:24 a.m.

We spoke with Gwen Preheim-Bartel, program coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Elkhart County's Family to Family Education Program. The free program lasts for 11 weeks,and teaches people with mentally ill loved ones how to aid and understand them.

If you have further questions about the advice given below or mental illness in general, please feel free to leave them in the comments below this story. Preheim-Bartel has agreed to answer them throughout the day. You can also contact Preheim-Bartel at Barheim@frontier.com.

1. It's a disease

All mental illnesses are brain diseases. Just like diabetes is a problem of the pancreas not functioning properly, a mental illness is a problem with the brain not functioning properly. It's not a disgrace, it's an illness. Dr. Jeff Lichtman of Harvard University says, "If understanding everything we need to know about the brain is a mile long, we are now at about three inches." We have a very long way to go to fully understand how the brain functions.

2. The need is great for experts who can help

One in 17 people lives with a serious mental illness that impairs daily functioning -- only about half get the treatment and support they need. This is a seriously underserved population. There is a huge need for more psychiatrists and more beds. There are more mentally ill people in jails and prisons than there are in treatment hospitals.

3. Communities need options for treatment

We need more resources for mental health treatment in our communities. Our schools, hospitals, community mental health centers, criminal justice agencies and state hospitals are all under-resourced to address serious mental illnesses. NAMI has been grading the states on how we are doing with serving the needs of the mentally ill. Indiana's grade was a D. No state got an A.

4. A mental illness does not make someone "bad"

Don't buy into all of the stigma around you. People with mental illness are not "bad" or ill because of some character flaw or failure of the person or the family. Our ill family members is not willfully trying to disgrace us, frustrate us or embarrass us. A parent with a child who has a mental illness is not a bad parent. That child is simply ill.

5. Support takes time and patience

Someone with a mental illness needs time to heal. Don't criticize, fight with them or punish them. Keep your voice down. Don't try to "jump start" someone in depression or "shoot down" someone with mania or argue with schizophrenic delusions. Help them learn which of their behaviors are caused by their illness.

6. What can you do if your loved one refuses professional help?

What if my loved one doesn't want help? Learn about LEAP: Listen, empathize, agree and partner. Read Dr. Xavier Amador's book "I'm not sick, I don't need help" to learn how to communicate with your loved one with a mental illness who doesn't want help. This technique can help you learn how to communicate in healthy ways; on the basis of your relationship rather than your knowledge.

7. Mental illness does not equal violent behavior

There is widespread agreement among experts that people living with a mental illness are not more violent than others. There are some factors that can increase the risk of violence in a small subset of people with mental illness: untreated psychosis (extreme impairment in the person's perception of reality), co-occurring substance use disorders and a past history of violence.

8. The right treatment can help everyone involved cope and recover

Almost all people with a mental illness can recover or recover by managing their symptoms, and be functioning members of society. Getting the right medication helps, learning about their illness is critical, having a supportive family is priceless. Much is being done to promote recovery including the Clubhouse in Goshen.

9. Know signs of mental illness for early diagnosis and treatment

The age most people become ill is between 16 and 30, and within that range the late teenage years are the most common. Approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience a severe mental disorder in a given year. One can imagine how difficult it is for teens and youth to be dealing with a severe brain disorder and learning to become an adult at the same time.

10. Learn the facts

If you have a loved one you think may have a mental illness, get some education. Learn about the mental illness and also learn how to take care of yourself in the midst of this. NAMI's Family to Family Education Program is available right here in Elkhart County twice a year and is an evidence-based program that changes people's lives. Classes are free because NAMI believes it is everyone's right to be educated about mental illness. NAMI always says, "You can't know what no one has told you."

Click here for more information and statistics about mental illness in the United States.

Though NAMI of Elkhart County's Family to Family Education Program starting next week is full, another will be held in September. Contact the local NAMI chapter or Preheim-Bartel at 574-534-5220 for more information. NAMI's St. Joseph County chapter in South Bend will be teaching the same classes in March. You can contact them at 574-259-3564 or information@namisjc.org.


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