To Get Better Faster: Educate Thyself
Some helpful resources to aid in recovery
Judith Carrington, President, Mental Health Resources
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Consumers and Family Members Agree on Need for Psychoeducation

Ignorance is not bliss if you're suffering from severe mental illness. Yet, amazingly, the mental health system is just beginning to accept education as an essential part of treatment.

According to Jonathan Blaufarb, a consumer and the Human Resources Director for a consumer-run mental health agency, "My experience is that recovery can only occur in community; that's why treatment providers, consumers and family need to get educated together."

Shirlee Cohen is a consumer, family member, and a psychiatric nurse. She describes how education was her lifeline: "I empowered myself after severe illness through lobbying and advocacy. This self-education became an essential element for a balanced and productive life."

And family member Gail Kriegel Mallin states, "Education changed my life and the life of my family; family support and education are the keys to recovery and yet the missing links in the mental health system."

Psychoed Examples

The lack of mental health education has spawned NAMI's Family-to-Family and consumer-designed Peer-to-Peer programs, Mary Ellen Copeland's Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) and The Bridger program for consumers making the transition from hospital to community initiated by the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS). Unfortunately, only a small percentage of families and consumers discover these resources and then only after several years of illness.

But the Rolls Royce form of mental health education involves both family members and consumers meeting bi-weekly for nine months. Proven by the National Institute of Mental Health's six-year PORT research to have the highest scientific basis, Multi Family Group (MFG), or Family Psychoeduction, promises reduced relapse rates of 50% in the first year, fewer symptoms, earlier recovery and lessened fiscal and physical burdens on the family. The New York State Office of Mental Health includes psychoeducation as one of the six Evidence-Based Practices in its new licensing program, PROS, and is training providers in 15 to 17 sites throughout the state. The federal mental health agency, SAMHSA, is scheduled to distribute a manual or ToolKit on psychoeducation in 2005.

Elements of Psychoed

What do all these formats have in common? They all deal with the questions of what is the illness; how to manage symptoms and act on early warning signs; how to advocate for support, housing and employment; and how to learn problem-solving. Although some are for consumers or families only, and some are for both, all forms of mental health education are effective to some degree.

Until mental health education is mainstreamed into the mental health system, we all have to put our own program together. Here's a starter kit:

Basic Facts about Illness and Treatment

Search online. Some examples: NOAH-health.org for viewpoints on various disorders; and for the basics, try WebMD. From the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), find www.naminys.org and nami-nyc-metro.org. They offer comprehensive guides for families, such as "Navigating the Mental Health Maze." Another good site is the Self-Help Source, www.selfhelp.org. Check out books (for instance, Kay Redfield Jamison's An Unquiet Mind about Bipolar Disorder; Ken Steele's The Day the Voices Stopped about Schizophrenia; and I Am Not Sick, I Don't Need Help! for practical advice to families.) Also call 800 LIFENET, a crisis information and referral network with professional specialists.

Social Supports; Stressful Situations, and Problem-Solving

Upon first day of hospital admission, ask for discharge planning to obtain case management, a day treatment program and supports for housing and employment. Receive crisis assistance from mental health professionals at 800 LIFENET and peer support groups. Lists of early warning signs are on the National Mental Health Association, NAMI and DBSA websites. Each crisis is different and the sooner you recognize the symptoms the sooner you will prevent the crisis from escalating.

Emotional Support and Counseling

The first place to go is support groups; some led by trained facilitators and peers; some specializing in a particular disorder. There are the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (Schizophrenia); Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and the Mood Disorders Support Group (MDSG) for Manic Depression; and Treatment and Research Advancements Association for Personality Disorder (TARA). Peer Education and Support Some of the most healing and powerful tools are NAMI'S Peer-to-Peer and Family-to-Family courses and its Awakenings support groups.

At a time when policy leadership at the federal level calls for "consumer and family-centered care," and evidence-based services, all forms of peer support and self-help have become highly prized. It's up to us stakeholders, consumers and family members, to demand that mental health education become universally available in all its formats at the earliest point of entry into the system.
Judith Carrington, mhresources@nyc.rr.com, is the President of Mental Health Resources, a consumer/family/provider-led organization collaborating for mental health education. She is a family member.
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