Group helps families of mentally ill National organization's county chapter is revived

October 04, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A fledgling group, dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues, has revived a chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Carroll County.

Most members are parents of teen-agers or young adults diagnosed with mental illness, and they guard their identities.

"Our main focus is to create a better atmosphere and improve the facilities offered in Carroll County," said Pam, the mother of an adult coping with depression. "These people are challenged enough with illness. They don't need to be challenged finding the help they need."

Statistics researched by the national alliance show mental illness is more common than cancer or heart disease. In any year, more than 5 million Americans suffer from an acute episode of mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

One in five families is affected by severe mental illness. About 7.5 million children under 18 have mental, behavioral or developmental disorders.

"Drugs and alcohol can mask mental illness," said Pam. "A lot of parents don't recognize the signs. Look at your child carefully and make sure what is really going on. You cannot always dismiss what you think is typical adolescent behavior."

The Carroll chapter welcomes those who need its support. Members can often guide each other through the maze of health care for the mentally ill.

"The meetings are open to anyone whose life has been touched by mental illness," said Deb, whose 19-year-old son suffers from schizophrenia. "They have been a godsend to me. This is emotion-based because we are all living this."

Tears are inevitable, she said.

"I can cry there because we all have a lot of stuff to deal with," Deb said.

Monthly meetings are an opportunity to exchange information on what services are available locally. The dozen members share stories of failed medications and the intricacies of health-insurance coverage for the mentally ill.

"We are all consumers and caregivers, trying to give emotional support to each other," said Pam. "We have been there and can make suggestions about what steps to take next."

Chapter members complain of the lack of services, scarce employment opportunities and limited housing. There are tales of endless waits in emergency rooms.

"It takes hours, because our children are not bleeding and don't seem to need immediate attention," said Deb.

The women fear for the future of adult children, many of whom live with their parents. Diane worries what will happen to her 17-year-old schizophrenic son when he graduates from high school.

"He should start to become independent, but he will always need assistance," Diane said. "The saddest thing for me is the opportunities he will never have."

The more voices that weigh in on the problems faced by families of the mentally ill, the more chances they may be heard by a health care system that relies increasingly on families to provide for patients.

"What the system took care of 25 years ago, parents are doing today because the system knows we will care for our children," said Pam.

Parents are not always capable, said Debbie, the newest chapter member. Her 24-year-old son lives in a boardinghouse and refuses to take prescribed medication for schizophrenia.

"I feel that I have truly fallen through the cracks," Debbie said. "It really helps to talk to people in the same situation. Sooner or later, somebody will help us."

Mental Illness Awareness Week begins today. Nationally, the alliance will focus on the latest research on brain disorders and sponsor events to increase public understanding.

The Carroll chapter meets at 7 p.m. the third Tuesday of the month at First Presbyterian Church, 65 Washington Road, Westminster. On Oct. 19, a meeting is scheduled with area mental health workers. Information: 410-775-7289.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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