THE VILLAGES — When Karen Levy’s son was diagnosed with schizophrenia nine years ago, the Mount Dora resident wasn’t sure where to turn for help.
“At the time he was first developing this illness, I wasn’t aware of any educational-type programs,” she said. “So for four or five years, (our family) did the best we could to go through the system. We weren’t really ever educated in what was going on with our child or the dynamics of how it would affect our family.”
But that all changed after Levy took part in the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, Family-To-Family Education Program.
“It has been very helpful, because with more education and information, you can make better decisions and choices for your loved one,” Levy said.
The NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program is a free 12-week course for family and loved ones of individuals living with schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other serious mental illnesses.
According to Dale Austin, president of NAMI Lake/Sumter affiliate, those who participate in the program receive information about illnesses of the brain and their treatment; coping skills; and how to find support and services within their community.
For Levy, the program was a great way to become better educated about the medical aspect of mental disorders, such as diagnosis, medication and how to better communicate with her son.
“It helps keep you focused more and more on an in-depth level, week after week, with educating you more about what mental illness and brain disorders are,” she said.
Although the education portion of the classes has proven beneficial for Levy, the support she has received from her fellow classmates also has been invaluable.
In fact, Levy and some of her former classmates still meet once a month in an effort to continue providing support for each other.
“As (the education) happens on a class level, there’s another whole dynamic that happens between the people in the class,” she said. “You become very close to them; you bond more.”
Pam and Jim Fitzmaurice, of Spruce Creek South, know all too well how important education and community support are for those dealing with mental illness.
The couple has a son who was diagnosed with schizophrenia — a diagnosis Jim said was hard to swallow.
“It’s one of the loneliest situations you can find yourself in,” Jim said. “You never think about mental illness striking in your own family … and suddenly we found ourselves much deeper in this thing than we ever dreamed we would be.”
But instead of hiding out in shame and confusion, the couple searched for answers, first becoming involved with NAMI support groups and most recently becoming instructors for the upcoming Family-To-Family program in The Villages.
Being a part of NAMI, Jim said, has been a life-changing experience.
“It was very interesting the first night we went. I didn’t really feel that much emotion, but when I began to share with the rest of the group what was going on, all types of stuff starting going through my head,” he said. “Sometimes you have to talk it out for it to come out and make sense.”
The NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program will take place 7-9 p.m. one night a week for 12 weeks at the Colony Counseling and Enrichment Center in Colony Plaza, 340 Heald Way, Suite 208, in The Villages. For information, call Pam at 350-3613. For information on other NAMI programs, call 406-8695.
April Toler is a reporter with the Daily Sun. She can be reached at 753-1119, ext. 9013, or firstname.lastname@example.org.