Family-to-Family course offers support to loved ones of those with mental illnesses

January 02, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Connie Pauley, left, president of the local National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), and Patty Rutter will be teaching the Family-to-Family Education Program, a 12-week course for relatives and friends of people with serious mental illnesses. The course begins Saturday, Jan. 15, at Western Maryland Hospital Center.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

She was 11 years old when she started seeing things — insects crawling on her hands, make-believe friends sitting next to her at the dinner table.

Her parents attributed it to an active imagination.

But as their daughter got older, things got worse.

She became upset over run-of-the-mill sounds — ambulance sirens, the ringing of a telephone.

And there were mood swings. One minute she was happy, the next she was distraught.

After visits with her family doctor, who referred her to specialists, the young girl was diagnosed as bipolar with psychotic features and anxiety disorders.

Since that time, life has been a roller-coaster ride of symptoms, diagnoses, medications and hope.

Her illness, her mother said, dominates every moment of family life.

It's a situation with which Patty Rutter can identify.

She, too, has a daughter who is bipolar.

And she, too, knows the excruciating worry that is generated by unanswered questions, frustrating treatments and uncertainty.

That's why she hopes other families who are going through similar problems will attend the Family-to-Family Education Program sponsored by National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) of Washington County. Classes begin Saturday, Jan. 15, at Western Maryland Hospital in Hagerstown.

The diagnosis

Rutter said her daughter was a preteen when, in the dead of winter, she lost touch with reality.

"She tried to run away with no shoes on her feet and 4 inches of snow on the ground," she said. "Something just happened inside of her."

Rutter said mental illness runs in her family, but prior to this incident, there were no warning signs — nothing that would have made her family concerned.

"It's not something we were looking for — especially in a child," she said.

Rutter said her daughter was evaluated and met the criteria for being bipolar.

The diagnosis was followed by options for treatment, including medication.

"Not everything works the same for everybody," she said. "So there were always adjustments being made. At first, it was horrible because you felt like nothing was going to work."

It took about four years to find what would work, she said.

Today, her daughter looks like a typical teenager. She's the young woman standing next to you in the grocery line, the person walking beside you at the mall, Rutter said. And she's her own biggest advocate.

But it took years of navigating therapy sessions and dealing with conflicting advice to finally see light at the end of the tunnel.

Having a loved one with mental illness "turns your whole world upside down," said Rutter.

Finding support

That's why Rutter felt a huge relief when she and her family were introduced to the NAMI.

"We were grasping for straws," Rutter said. "Every time we were hopeful, something else would happen. It really took its toll. We felt so isolated."

But thanks to a course offered by NAMI — the Family-to-Family Education Program — Rutter said they realized they weren't alone.

In fact, according to government surveys, at least six million American children have difficulties that are diagnosed as serious mental disorders — a number that has tripled since the early 1990s.

Illnesses of the brain include schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder and co-occurring brain disorders and addictive disorders.

Despite the different diagnoses, Rutter said class participants form a bond in dealing with a situation that is a major challenge in their lives.

When Rutter and her husband took the 12-week program, it was offered in Frederick, Md., she said.

"But not once did we dread making those trips. Instead, it became a respite," she said. "We became excited each week about attending the classes because we finally felt like we were getting the support we so desperately needed."

And support is the key, she stressed.

"Often, you are given a diagnosis and then left on your own. You don't know what to do next. NAMI really changed our lives," she said.


Rutter said the classes offered by NAMI covered a variety of topics — from coping skills to problem solving. There were role-playing workshops and group testimonies.

"Sometimes, it became quite emotional," Rutter said.

But, it also was life-changing.

"We gained information, insight and strength," she said.

And this time around, Rutter will be one of the trained people leading the classes.

"It's a grassroots program," she explained. "Class participants who complete the course are encouraged to, then, head the classes."

When approached, Rutter said she was happy to do it.

"I don't want to see anybody go through what we went through," she shared.

That's the purpose of NAMI and the programs it offers, said Connie Pauley, who heads the Washington County NAMI organization. It's about knowing you're not alone.

Pauley became involved with NAMI when her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia many years ago.

"I was looking for support and I found it with this group," she said. "Family members supporting one another makes all the difference in the world — because they truly understand what each person is going through."

Pauley said membership in the local advocacy group averages about 30 people.

Washington County is one of hundreds of NAMI groups across the country offering a full spectrum of programs and services for people affected by serious mental illness, she said.

"But some people do not know we're here. When faced with mental illness head on, they spin in circles and ask what to do, what to do, what do to?" she said.

But Pauley said the group has been trying to get the word out by distributing brochures to various medical offices and agencies and posting notices of meetings in the newspaper. She also makes the group's presence known while serving on local mental health boards.

Gaining understanding

Pauley said she understands the confusion and frustration families face when a loved one is diagnosed with mental illness disorders. Her son was diagnosed at the age of 15.

"We saw signs but I didn't know about mental illness," she said. "Now, we live in an age of more resources."

Pauley said there also is less stigma attached to mental illness. 

"At one time, people with certain disorders were hidden away," she said. "There still are stigmas. But fighting those stigmas is a big part of NAMI."

It's also one of the areas discussed in the Family-to-Family program, which Pauley said she completed in 1997.

Today, more than 100,000 family members across the country have taken the course, she said.

Pauley said the results of a recent study on the effectiveness of Family-to-Family Education Program, conducted at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, showed that course participants gained a greater understanding of mental illness, coped much better, worried less and felt newly empowered to advocate for better treatment and services for their relative.

For the program to be effective, Pauley said class size is usually small, affording people a chance to get to know each other and discuss topics in an intimate setting.

The classes provide information on a variety of mental illness disorders, she said.

Participants also receive up-to-date information about medications, side effects and strategies for medication adherence; current research related to the biology of brain disorders, as well as support and services within the community.

Pauley said both parents are encouraged to attend the program "so that everybody is on the same page."

And while there is no quick fix for the problems associated with mental illness, Pauley said she encourages families to never give up hope.

"You look at a graduation picture and you remember all the hopes and dreams you had for that person," she said. "Now, put a different picture in its place. But don't give up on hopes and dreams."

If you go ...

WHAT: Family-to-Family Education Program

WHEN: The course is 12 weeks, beginning Saturday, Jan. 15, 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.,

WHERE: Western Maryland Hospital Center, 1500 Pennsylvania Ave., Hagerstown.

COST: Free

CONTACT: To register for Family-to-Family Education Program, contact Patty Rutter at

For more information on NAMI of Washington County, call Connie Pauley at 301-824-7725.

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