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Health Column: Helping families cope with mental illness

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in four adults nationwide experiences mental illness in a given year — however, the person diagnosed is not the only one who’s affected.

The North Fork will soon be home to a new, free, family-to-family mental health education program, a type of support system area residents have previously lacked, said Sharon McHugh, administrative assistant at the Family Service League’s North Fork Counseling center in Mattituck who is helping to run the program.

“Mental illness really affects the whole family and there are people who try to suffer through that alone,” Ms. McHugh said. “There are going to be people there that have been through, or are going through, the same thing, support there that you can’t get from a clinician.”

Ms. McHugh said the program, created by the nonprofit advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness, was instrumental in helping her and her family navigate the mental health system.

“I am the granddaughter, the daughter, and the sibling of someone who suffers from mental illness,” Ms. McHugh said. “It taught me how to advocate for myself and the person who’s ill. It taught me how to find the correct type of services and what was out there in the community and how to make it work for us. I didn’t feel so alone.”

She said she used to travel an hour and 20 minutes to take part in weekly meetings, and worked to bring the program to the North Fork so other families could benefit.

The 12-week-course is designed for parents, siblings, spouses and significant others who have been affected by an individual with severe and persistent mental illness, whether they are overcome by depression, panic or compulsive disorders, schizophrenia or addiction. The classes will be held every Thursday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Mattituck Presbyterian Church.

Families will receive guidance on how to locate services within the community, along with up-to-date information about illnesses, medications, side effects, and strategies for medication adherence. The program teaches problem solving, listening, and communication techniques, along with strategies for handling crises and relapse, according to the NAMI website,

Along with learning how to help those with mental illness, group members will also learn how to focus on their own care, coping with worry, stress and the emotional overload that may accompany being a caregiver, according to the program.

“It seems so much of the focus goes over to the person with the illness; the other people and their needs become neglected,” said Susan Dingle, a private practice therapist in Southold. “But it’s really quite a well-known thing that if you’re not taking care of yourself, how can you take care of someone else?”

Those interested in the program should contact Sharon McHugh at 631-680-0849 to register. Classes begin Oct. 17. Class size is limited.

Got a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected]. Follow her on twitter @carriemiller01.