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The reality of mental illness

Topeka Capital Journal - 12/25/2017

When Andrea Conlee enrolled in a workshop for family caregivers, she was no stranger to mental illness.

The psychiatric nurse and social worker grew up with two parents who struggled with depression and alcoholism. Her father often was absent, and her mother was what she called a "functioning drunk."

"It's the white elephant in the room -- she died never admitting she was alcoholic," Conlee said. "Really tough as a young person and teenager. You don't want to bring your friends home."

Conlee eventually earned a master's degree in social work so she could help other families. Despite her extensive academic and professional background in social work, Conlee, with the encouragement of a friend, enrolled in the National Alliance for Mental Illness Family to Family Workshop, which will be offered again in January in Topeka.

The free 12-week course is open to the public for friends and family members of people struggling with mental illness. The Topeka affiliate of NAMI will begin the next session Jan. 15. Classes will be held Monday nights through March 26, covering everything from empathy and communication to medication and diagnosis.

"(It is important) for people to understand what it is their loved ones are going through and how they can deal with it, and to know that it is a disease and disability of the brain," said Marilyn Rowland, one of three instructors for the workshop. "It's not a character flaw."

She said there is a sense of relief when people realize there is no blame for the disease.

"You can't give someone a mental illness any more than you can give them cancer," Rowland said.

Unlike many participants, Conlee's experience with mental illness was mostly in her past by the time she took the class about nine years ago. However, she said, the experience still affects her, and the program gave her a support system and greater understanding.

"I was reminded as an adult by listening to other people's stories of the impact it had on not only myself but my entire family," Conlee said. "It gives you permission to cry and revisit those emotional struggles."

Family to Family even gave Conlee the push she needed to mend her relationship with her father.

"It was one of the best things I ever did," she said. "He told me things that I didn't necessarily want to hear, that were painful to hear about mom and dad, but it helped me so much -- the more information that you have to make peace, not only with them but with myself."

Conlee now is preparing to use her social work background to lead NAMI's family support group. Like Rowland, she believes the programs are important to increasing awareness and reducing the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

"An enormous part of this, in my opinion, is learning how to help the next generations not only in your own family but in your friends and whoever you come in contact with," Conlee said. "Because of the stigma, people still don't talk about it."

Credit: By Katie Bernard Special to The Capital-Journal


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