Helping a loved one struggle with a debilitating mental illness can often leave family members lost without a sense of direction, which is where a local program can act as a guiding light.
On a day-by-day basis it's often family on the front lines helping mentally ill relatives at a time when bewilderment and anger are common and anticipated, yet wholly futile. While a physician's consultation can provide families with a wealth of information for dealing with the diagnosis, a local peer group hopes to fill in the practical voids left behind.
The Paducah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness will offer a free, 12-week course in February that seeks to educate families and friends about how to handle every aspect of a diagnosis, including major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and borderline personality disorder.
"This is a comprehensive look at all these mental illnesses and how similar they are to each other in a way, and why it's difficult to get a diagnosis," said Marcia Garatt, course educator. "We talk about the functions of the brain, what's going on with research, how the person with mental illness is handling recovery, problem solving and how to approach certain situations."
As an instructor herself, Garatt can speak to the difficulty of dealing with mental illnesses: her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age after the Garatts had initially dismissed several years of the behavior.
Now, 40 years after the diagnosis, the Garatts are translating their experiences into applicable skills to pass along to newfound caregivers.
"If we had this course when our son first became ill it would have saved us a lot of heartache," she said. "It's not a magic wand, it doesn't make it go away, but for most people it's a relief to know there are ways to manage the illness."
The course is taught by trained volunteers who have been caregivers to loved ones with mental illness, and can provide first-person insight into certain situations. The course fills a figurative tool box of strategies for helping understand and control situations specific to certain mental illnesses.
Barney McNeill, a course instructor, said limited funding and available resources for mental illness treatment nationwide makes the course even more important. When it can take several weeks to schedule medical care or consultation, the course bolsters families' peace of mind.
"As a family member you need to know as much about your loved one that is mentally ill as possible, and this gives you the education to help," McNeill said.
The NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program begins on Feb. 7. For more information and to register for the program, call 270-994-3230 by Jan. 20.
Contact Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676 or follow @WCPinkston on Twitter.