By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

Back in 2015 when Jennifer Morgan was parenting two adult children who both had histories of mental health and substance use disorders, she felt incredibly challenged. Her experience was extremely isolating.  She faced stigma, judgment, and poor treatment from people in her life, even from professionals. When she began attending the Family Support Group provided by the Spokane Affiliate of the National Alliance on Mentally Illness (NAMI), she found support, and most importantly, she began spending time with people who knew what it was like to parent children with challenges like hers. Now, eight years later, Ms. Morgan gives back to the community where she had found so much support by serving as a co-facilitator of the NAMI Spokane Family Support Group (FSG).  May of 2023 is national mental health awareness month and NAMI is celebrating the month by spreading the word about the availability of their support groups including the FSG.

Ms. Morgan’s co-facilitator, Angela Dierdorff, also attended the Family Support Group first as a participant. As an attendee, Ms. Dierdorff  particularly appreciated hearing stories of hope. It is not a coincidence that both facilitators of the group have lived experience similar to the group members. Part of NAMI’s requirements for facilitators is they must have walked in the shoes of the clientele of their groups.

The FSG Structure is Evidence Based

All groups facilitated by the Spokane Affiliate are guided by principles, structures, and approaches that come out of the research on effective practices conducted by NAMI National. Every facilitator is trained in that structure and is committed to following that structure.

At the Family Support Group, the meeting opens with an agreement on group guidelines. Members agree to things like confidentiality, starting and ending on time, and treating each other with respect. According to Ms. Dierdorff who has been co-facilitator for over two years, participants in the group have always treated each other with full respect. The atmosphere of the group is unconditional acceptance.

After talking about the guidelines, each attendee has a chance to share what is on their mind for one or two minutes. If someone has a burning issue that needs immediate attention, one of the co-facilitators will take that person somewhere private where they can talk about the issue. There is no pressure to share. Some participants prefer to sit quietly and absorb the energy and ideas from the group.

Even though everyone in the FSG is on their own journey, they benefit from the wisdom of the group. For example, one woman recently shared in the group that her adult son who has schizophrenia had been hospitalized involuntarily and she didn’t know how to reach him. She learned from the group that she could request that her son sign a release of information (ROI) for her to be able to connect to him and his care team while he was hospitalized. She got the ROI and was greatly relieved to be in contact with him and his doctors.

At the group, people share information on resources. For example, when Ms. Dierdorff was a participant, she learned that the WA State Health Care Authority has a Mental Health Advocate. She registered a complaint with the advocate which eventually resulted in her being able to get her son into treatment. The mental health system is very complex and is like a maze with a bewildering amount of providers and types of treatment. The FSG serves to help guide people through the maze. Participants learn what their rights are, what their family member’s rights are, but perhaps the most important thing they receive is empathy. They can be seen by others who are on a similar journey.

Another part of the group’s evidence-based toolkit is called the Stages of Emotional Reaction. This document recognizes that mental illness events like manic breaks are traumatic for both the person suffering from the disorder as well as their family members. Reviewing these stages helps normalize the reactions that family members are experiencing.

Another important aspect of the work of the FSG is encouraging participants to focus on self-care. If an invididual is not taking care of themselves, they can’t effectively support their family member. The FSG always closes with people sharing what they will do to take care of themselves in the coming month.

The co-facilitators also provide information on other programs that NAMI offers including NAMI Peer-to-Peer, an 8-week structured educational program that focuses on sharing information important to those with a mental health condition as well as another 8-week session called Family-to-Family for their family members. Spokane NAMI also runs a support group called NAMI Connection for people directly living with a mental health condition. All of these programs free of cost and are peer-led.

How to Join NAMI’s Family Support Group

Spokane NAMI offers a once monthly Family Support Group in person on the third Saturday of every month from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at their offices at 152 S. Jefferson St., Suite 100 and online on the third Tuesday from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.. There is no waitlist or fee. NAMI appreciates it if people register in advance. To register, click on this link.

Jen Morgan is a mom to two incredibly brave and resilient children. As a social worker and educator, she has been working and playing with children and families in Spokane Washington for over thirty-five years.

Angie Dierdorff is an advocate for change in the system serving those living with mental health conditions and co-occurring diagnoses. Angie is mother to two adult sons, and lives with her amazingly supportive life partner in Spokane.

Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.