Class aims to help those caring for a child with mental illness

August 31, 2011

Christine Driscoll uses words such as “disturbing” and “scary” to describe the days of dealing with the anxiety-induced, two-hour-long tantrums her then-4-year-old daughter would throw each day after preschool.

“I was very stressed, because I could see how much she was suffering, right before my eyes, and there was nothing I could do to stop it,” said Driscoll, of Great Mills, whose daughter, now 7, receives treatment for anxiety and doing well.

Laura McCombs of Hollywood describes as “frustrating” and “overwhelming” her family’s struggle to receive a diagnosis for the violent behavior displayed by one of her children, even as McCombs and her husband deal with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression issues with their other four children.

“This past year has been really, really traumatic for our family,” McCombs said.

Driscoll and McCombs understand the challenges and emotional turmoil that comes with raising a child with a mental illness. And they have some answers for others who might be experiencing similar problems.

The women will share some of those answers when they lead a new class this fall in Leonardtown for NAMI Southern Maryland. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a nationwide nonprofit group dedicated to providing support, education and advocacy for people who have serious mental illnesses and their loved ones.

The free class is designed for parents and caregivers of children with mental illnesses. It is designed to help parents understand the biology of mental illnesses and receive an accurate diagnosis of their child’s illness. The class also will include information for parents and caregivers on basic care for the child and themselves and offer coping skills to deal with the emotional problems that parents and other family members face.

For instance, parents might learn that to help their young child cope with anxiety issues, they can teach him to “blow bubbles,” which works to distract the child and makes the child take deep breaths, helping him to handle his symptoms.

Driscoll and McCombs participated in training for the class in Richmond at the end of March. They were asked to lead the class because of their previous enthusiastic participation in NAMI-related events and because they were open to speaking about their situations as parents with younger children who suffer with mental illness, which is the focus of the NAMI Basics class.

“NAMI is very particular about providing training for all the leaders . . . all the class teachers and support group leaders,” said Amy Henderson, president and chief executive officer of NAMI Southern Maryland.

NAMI receives donations and some small grants, although the Southern Maryland affiliate receives no government funding. NAMI Southern Maryland paid for the trainers’ hotel stay and their materials in Richmond.

The class will be the first NAMI Basics class to be offered in Southern Maryland. The class has been around for a couple of years, Henderson said.

NAMI Southern Maryland also sponsors a peer-to-peer class for adults who have received a mental illness diagnosis and a family-to-family class for spouses, siblings, children or any family member of a person with a mental illness. Both free classes also will be offered in Leonardtown in the fall. The family-to-family class is the NAMI signature class for which it is best known.

Driscoll and McCombs said their involvement with NAMI has filled in the gaps where medical assistance left off.

“We’ve been going to psychiatrists and therapists for years,” McCombs said. But it was NAMI that “gave me the firsthand information. It taught me to recognize the signs and symptoms of a bigger problem. It helped me to really understand the ins and outs of what is going on . . . to learn ways to cope better.”

Aside from prescribing medications, Henderson said, doctors often do little to explain how to handle mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disease and schizophrenia.

Parents who suspect their child’s behavior indicates a mental illness must wrestle with “under-diagnosis, misdiagnosis and a lack of information,” Henderson said. In such cases, NAMI attempts to step in with its classes and other resource, such as support groups and educational resources, she said.

McCombs said NAMI’s training for the class she will co-lead “was the most enlightening experience I’ve had in forever.”

“So much of what I was dealing with was understood by others,” she said. “It just burned in me to share that comfort and knowledge.”

The NAMI Basic training built on her experience, she said.

“It gave information on how to be a better parent for a child who struggles with different issues,” she said. “It helped me take the emotional out of parenting. . . . This is an illness that can be treated.”

Driscoll’s said that her NAMI training made her feel empowered as a parent, adding that she hopes that the NAMI Basics class will help others feel the same way.

Driscoll suggested that parents who see their child’s behavior as extreme might want to consider the possibility that a mental illness is the cause.

“It’s extreme behavior, not just a misbehaving child,” she said.

She noted that her daughter is benefitting from having NAMI-trained parents.

“Oh, yeah,” Driscoll said. “She’s very successful. . . . I feel very empowered now. It’s changed our life.”

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