Thursday, July 31, 2008
State of mind
Workshops help people cope with mental illness in their families.
ERIC BRADY The Roanoke Times
Debbie Simpson (center) first became mentally ill at 15. Her stepmother, Jean Simpson (left), and father, Warren Simpson, have worked to help other families.
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Warren Simpson was plunged into the painful world of mental illness when his daughter started experiencing symptoms at 15.
All of a sudden, he had to deal with his daughter Debbie's obsessive-compulsive hand washing and the schizophrenic voices she heard. Like many parents with mentally ill children, he felt overwhelmed.
He enrolled in one of the first sessions of Mutual Education Support Advocacy, a series of free workshops designed for people struggling to care for a loved one with a mental illness.
Shortly afterward, he and his wife, Jean Simpson, became the first couple to co-teach the class. Warren Simpson also operates the phone line for people interested in the program and when people sign up, it's his voice that welcomes them.
Started in the Roanoke Valley in 1987, the MESA workshops are designed to educate people about mental illness and reduce the stress that family and friends experience. The 12-week classes are offered twice a year and are sponsored by Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill-Roanoke Valley. A new session begins Aug. 21.
Several organizers describe how important it is that the classes are co-taught by a family member with a mentally ill loved one and a mental health professional. The health professionals can offer insights into accessing the often confusing world of mental health services and explain issues such as commitment laws and medications. Meanwhile, family members can share insights into their own experience and help assure others they are not alone especially as they deal with feelings of anger, exhaustion and hopelessness.
The class helps people struggling with difficult questions. For instance, what do you do when your loved one has a hallucination? Or, what should you do when your mentally ill child tells you that you are the one who is ill?
Jean Simpson said she will often go home and cry about the different cases she hears. "These folks are in a world of hurt," she said, adding that people often don't know which way to run or whether they should bury themselves in a hole.
Meanwhile, Debbie Simpson, 36, knows firsthand how draining mental illness can be. Her case illustrates how complex and interconnected various illnesses can be. She said she takes four medications a day to deal with her schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, major depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In her 21 years of battling mental illness, she said she has felt scared of germs, in a haze from the various medications, stressed out from battling illness while holding down a job, and scared by voices she's heard that she knows are not real.
But, she's also come a long way. She now works 20 hours a week and lives on her own.
She said that it's hard for people without mental illness to understand what she's struggled with, but she believes that MESA has helped her father and stepmother do so.
"I think it's helped a lot for them to understand a bit of what I'm going through," she said. "They're very much a support. My dad and my stepmom are my biggest supporters."
According to information from NAMI, one in five families includes a family member with a mental illness.
Jean Simpson says that it is family members who normally spend the most time with their mentally ill loved one and can play a critical part in their treatment plan.
"The families can help so much if they're allowed to be a part of the team," she said.
Tom Spurlock will teach the upcoming class and described how difficult mental illness is because it is so complex. "With every other illness you can take a test," he said. "There's no test for mental illness."
Helen Lang is a Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare professional who has taught MESA and now trains future MESA teachers. She said the program is a networking system that helps families support their mentally ill loved one. She says that family members often feel hopeless because nobody tells them what to expect or how to deal with the rough times ahead.
"When they get to MESA, they feel pretty hopeless," Lang said. She described how people often undergo a dramatic transformation during the workshops.
"You give people hope," Lang said. "You're giving them the hope that they've lost."
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