Melissa Mabe’s brother died by suicide almost 10 years ago.
“My family was deeply affected by the loss of my brother,” the Lexington woman said. “The death of a sibling is especially hard.”
She described her brother, Heath, as her lifelong companion.
“The grief was too much to bear for a long time,” she said.
A friend recommended that she attend NAMI’s (National Alliance on Mental Illness) “Family-to-Family” class, which is a free, 12-class education program for family members of adults living with mental illness.
By participating in this program Mabe said she’s better able to understand and help others with mental illness.
“Family-to-Family teaches some problem-solving skills that can be applied to everyday life and it’s helped me to use reflective responses and to set limits,” Mabe said.
Mabe is now an instructor for the class. The program is taught by trained teachers who are also family members and know what it is like to have a loved one living with mental illness.
"I’m a registered nurse with some behavioral health experience, but I continue to learn something new from the people who participate in each Family-to-Family that I teach,” she said. “And each class it gets a little easier to share my story, too.”
Educating, supporting and advocating for local families affected by mental illness are the foundational elements of NAMI’s role within Richland County.
“We come right alongside them and make sure that they're educated on the illnesses, make sure that they have support, make sure that they're getting excellent medical help and treatment,” said executive director Mary Kay Pierce.
NAMI, which is headquartered in Virginia with affiliates across the country, aims to build better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
The local affiliate, NAMI Richland County, was established in 2001, although its cofounders, Mary Kay Pierce and Darlene Reed, had launched the local Family-to-Family classes in 1999 to help support and educate families living with mental illness.
Pierce spoke passionately about NAMI Richland County, which serves individuals and families in both Richland and Ashland counties.
“I just can't say enough about how much NAMI has helped our families,” Pierce said. “And I know our families very much appreciate it, too.
“You never know when mental health issues will affect a family, and one in four families have a loved one with a diagnosis, so it's very common. If families can have a place to turn and get the help they need, it's just so, so helpful.”
One of their most helpful programs, Pierce said, is the Family-to-Family class. This comprehensive course provides information and strategies for family, significant others and friends of people with mental health conditions.
According to the NAMI website, participants of the Family-to-Family class learn:
- How to solve problems and communicate effectively
- How to take care of yourself and manage stress
- How to support your loved one with compassion
- How to find and use local supports and services
- Up-to-date information on mental health conditions and how they affect the brain
- How to handle a crisis
- Current treatments and therapies
- The impact of mental health conditions on the entire family
“It really wraps around the family and gives them the support they need to help their loved one and to advocate for their loved ones,” Pierce said.
Thanks to a partnership with the Richland County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, this program is offered at no cost to the participants.
Since this program launched locally, there’s been a waiting list, Pierce said. It’s typically offered twice a year (in the spring and fall); however, this year there will also be a summer class starting June 6. To learn more and to register, call 419-522-6264.
“During my NAMI Family-to-Family education program, one of the trainers said that teaching Family-to-Family helps to share a life cut short by mental illness. That struck a chord with me and I repeat that to each class that I teach. It makes me feel like my brother lives on through the lives that we help,” Mabe said.
Mabe has found teaching the course to be rewarding.
“Inevitably someone will thank me for my time and I tell them that if I can help prevent even one family from going through what my family went through, then the time invested is well worth it,” she said. “It is very rewarding to know that I am helping others.”
NAMI Richland County is launching a new program called Family and Friends, which will serve as a “precursor” or broad overview of the organization’s Family-to-Family class.
This 90-minute program informs and supports people who have loved ones with a mental health condition. Participants learn about diagnoses, treatment, recovery, communication strategies, crisis preparation and NAMI resources. Seminar leaders have personal experience with mental health conditions in their families so they can better support the audience.
Classes will take place on May 29 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and June 1 from 10 to 11:30 a.m., both of which will be held at the Richland County Mental Health Board. For more information and to register, call 419-522-6264.
In addition to programs like the Family-to-Family class and Family and Friends, NAMI Richland County offers support groups for individuals with mental illness, their families and caregivers.
Pierce said the NAMI Richland County office takes confidential phone calls from individuals who may be inquiring about such things as access to mental health treatment. NAMI can then connect these callers to local resources for additional services and support.
NAMI Richland County is not staffed by counselors, but families helping families, said Pierce. Both Pierce and Reed have medical backgrounds (Pierce in nursing and Reed in nursing home administration).
“We're families helping families so we know what it is like to reach out for help for the first time when there's possibly signs and symptoms of mental health issues,” Pierce said.
NAMI Richland County also offers crisis intervention team (CIT) training to first responders and strives to educate the community on mental health by speaking to schools, churches and other groups.
“Our NAMI office is passionate about (education) because these are very treatable illnesses,” Pierce said. “If we can direct people to good treatment and help them get support, they can stay working, they can stay in their relationships, they can continue contributing to our community.
“We want to make sure that people are able to lead productive lives like they should be.”