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Course in Prince William on Brain Disorders Aims to Help Parents Cope, Connect

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Jeri Weeks remembers the disorienting feeling of learning for the first time that her son had schizophrenia. He was 18, and she couldn't track down enough information about the brain disorder that was hampering her son's reasoning and making him withdraw socially.

Weeks called a hotline for the Arlington County-based nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, and over time and with plenty of help, the disarray receded.

"I was very distraught, but NAMI led me to a support group, and that led me to start my own support group, and after all these years, my son is doing well," Weeks said.

Weeks is doing well herself; she's a vice president of Prince William County's chapter of NAMI and this month will begin co-teaching a weekly session aimed at helping Prince William parents or caregivers of children with brain disorders.

The "Visions for Tomorrow" course, in its ninth year, will cater to a large swath of adults whose children suffer in a significant way from behavioral or mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, autism and several others. The free course, every Wednesday night beginning April 22 at Penn Elementary in Woodbridge, is intended to aid parents who lack support networks or are in denial that their child will suffer for a long time, school and NAMI officials said.

The weekly sessions will provide parents a range of tools: advice on medical and government record-keeping, coping suggestions such as exercise and socializing, and reminders to be empathetic with their children. Additionally, the course will allow parents to lodge constructive criticism -- without teachers or school officials around -- about the school system's special education program.

Betty Ann Maher, a parent coordinator in the school system's special education office, said the size of the community of parents whose children have brain disorders is hard to gauge. Technically, about 650 students have been diagnosed with brain disorders and are receiving the school system's "individualized educational plans" -- contracts, essentially, outlining which specific services those students receive.

There are likely many more students with brain disorders in the school system, or at least among the 8,500 students in the county's special education program. But those students either may not know about their disorder or exhibit a more significant disability that qualifies them to receive special education services, Maher said.

"We have students that qualify for special education because they have mental retardation -- that's not a brain disorder, even though that happens in the brain," Maher said. A student with mental retardation, she added, could have supplementary brain disorders, such as depression or a conduct disorder.

For parents who take the Visions course, the atmosphere can be intense. About a dozen parents have signed up for this year's course, and about a dozen more spots are available.

"At first, everyone is uncomfortable," Weeks said. "I've had parents cry for the whole eight weeks, and that's okay. They can sit there and cry. We've had parents who say nothing -- and then write us a note at the end saying how much they learned. We've had parents open up and we've had parents who have gotten mad because they don't want to hear what we have to say. Knowing that your child is going to have this for life can be really upsetting."

Although the course has been around for years, new issues occasionally emerge. This year, Weeks, along with co-teacher Susan Frankowski, also of NAMI, will guide a lesson created for last year's course on how parents can decipher whether their child should be able to drive. "If your child is stable and medicated and not in a highly distractible frame of mind, and has shown trust and responsibility, maybe they can drive," Weeks said. "If your child is very distractible and prone to accidents even around the house, they might get in an accident" on the road.

For Weeks, who has been an elementary school guidance counselor, the course is a kind of culmination of her training and parenting. Her son, now 42 and living in San Diego, is working three days a week running a copy room at an engineering firm, she said. The other two days a week, he spends volunteering at a hospital.

For more information on the "Visions for Tomorrow" course, contact the school system's parent resource center at 703-791-8846 or e-mail bmaher@pwcs.edu. The free course, from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday nights, runs from April 22 to June 10 at Penn Elementary School, 12980 Queen Chapel Rd., Woodbridge.


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