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KC Reiter, a member of the Board of Directors of National Alliance on Mental Illness: Champlain Valley, hands Executive Director Amanda Bulris one of the prizes for the Battling Stigma Together Soup Cook-off, a fundraiser to benefit the organization. The event will be held during the Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration, set for 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sept. 11 at Trinity Park. Also happening next month is the alliance's Family-to-Family Education Program.

Loved ones of people with mental illness can receive some much needed support during an upcoming 12-week program geared toward identifying their needs.

The National Alliance of Mental Illness of Champlain Valley (NAMI:CV) will host the series of classes beginning from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, at the organization's office at 14 Healey Ave., Suite D.

"We need to stress that this program is for family members, for caregivers," said Theresa Bennett, a co-instructor for the Family-to-Family Education Program. "It's a series of classes designed for the loved ones of persons who suffer from major mental illness. It offers education about illnesses, treatments, drug therapies, coping skills, handling crises and listening and communicating techniques."

SELF CARE

The curriculum for the program, which is free and open to any caregivers of people with mental illness, was written by mental-health professionals who have had experience as family members of a loved one with brain disorders.

"Another major part of the course focuses on understanding the experience from their perspective, what a person with mental illness may be feeling," said Bennett, who first attended the program as a participant and subsequently became actively involved as a National Alliance volunteer. "We'll also look at self care, how to take care of yourself, so you can take care of your loved one."

Many of the past participants have moved from the course into active roles as advocates for those with mental-health issues, noted Bennett, who will be working with co-instructor Gail Parsons.

"This course is a wonderful experience," Parsons said. "It balances basic psychoeducation and skill training with emotional support, self care and empowerment. We hope families with a serious mental illness will take advantage of this unique opportunity."

EYE-OPENING

The program offered a new perspective on mental illness for former participant and current board member KC Reiter.

"When I took the class, I wasn't very well informed," said Reiter, who is facilitator for the local chapter's Family Support Group. "It helps you understand how a person with mental illness feels and makes it easier working with that person on a daily basis. It opened my eyes; it was a life-changing experience."

"It helps to create a sense of closeness within the family," added National Alliance's Champlain Valley Executive Director Amanda Bulris.

Specifically, the course covers information on schizophrenia, mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression, panic disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder. It is designed for parents, siblings, spouses, teenage and adult sons and daughters, partners and significant others who are caregivers of persons with severe and persistent mental illness.

CONFIDENTIAL

The program is not appropriate for individuals who have major mental illness themselves.

And though it is not designed to be a support group per se, it does offer people an opportunity to meet others who have experienced what they are going through.

"When you come in, you're nervous," Reiter said. "A lot of people come in never having talked about their family member or friend who has mental illness. But the classes are in a completely confidential and very safe environment to talk with each other about experiences.

"As a small community, you realize that you are in this together."

Participants will also have an opportunity to continue the relationships developed during the 12-week course through Family Gatherings, a support group for those with loved ones who have a mental illness. Family Gatherings offers two meetings a month throughout the year and is also a free service offered by the Champlain Valley chapter of the alliance.

Email Jeff Meyers at: jmeyers@pressrepublican.com

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