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There is support for loved ones of those with mental illness

By T.J. Ray

On a late and chilly Friday afternoon, she decided to run to the grocery store. When she hadn’t come back in an hour, I called a friend to see if she was over there. No.

When she wasn’t back in two hours, I started calling everyone I could think of — including the police and sheriff and highway patrol.

About 9 p.m. a call came from the sheriff in Savannah, Tennessee. After a few questions, he told me she was being held in the hospital there. Not having a car, I couldn’t go north. More calls from and to the sheriff until he said the doctors there were sending her to Charter Lakeside in Memphis, there being no psychiatric service at the local hospital. It was a very long night after I spoke to a nurse who checked her in in Memphis. It took till noon to make plans for her to be brought to the Bella Vista in Tupelo. A friend of mine drove me over there.

The story continues, but that isn’t remarkable because such misadventures strike folks all the time. One minute life is life, and then it is a whirling kaleidoscope of issues and questions for which there are no easy answers. At some point, one might well choose to swap this illness for cancer or pancreatitis or shingles. At least most body problems have treatments, but such is not the case with the human mind. After fifty-plus years of trying to cope with a mental illness, the one single compelling necessity that is writ large in my mind is this: GET HELP.

That help may not be an elixir that cures the problem. A loved one may still, from time to time, with no explicable reason, be overcome by things in the brain that make no sense and have no immediate fix. That lost feeling of sitting in an empty house, trying not to think all the What ifs that strike one, is very, very frightening. Over many years in five towns seeing about a dozen psychiatric specialists, watching the effects (or non-effects) of dozens of medicines and shock therapy, spending at least two Christmases in a motel room near a hospital wears one down.

Step one in coming to grips with confusion and frustration when a loved one has a mental illness is reaching out for support and answers. Simply telling someone what is going on in a troubled home and simply listening to accounts of the same sickness, simply realizing that you are not the only one fighting this monster — that’s the start. I once had no real appreciation for the work that Alcoholics Anonymous does, not understanding how the very act of sharing the disease may help individuals.

Perhaps every community offers help and hope to people who don’t know where to turn in the face of mental problems. In many of those towns a family-to-family education program works steadily to support families with the need I felt that night when my partner just disappeared. The group is The National Alliance on Mental Illness.

NAMI is a grassroots mental health organization that provides education, advocacy, support, and public-awareness so that folks dealing with mental illness can build better lives.

These wonderful volunteers and professionals work with families who often want little more than the start of an answer to Why? or What? When you feel the Titanic is sinking around you, it’s very gratifying to know someone is near, willing to throw the life preserver of hope and ideas for coping, getting through this end of the world. There will be more ends of the world. And so that time between or during or after breakdowns is precious and must be used to seek formulas for coping.

Soon the local NAMI folks will hold their next Family-to-Family Education series.

It will consist of twelve sessions, to be held at the North Mississippi Regional Center, meeting at 10 a.m., bi-monthly on the second and fourth Saturdays. The program is free and is conducted by individuals who have taken care of their own family members with these troubles.

Should you want to go ahead and reach out to NAMI, simply call their Helpline, 800-950-6264. Local numbers may give you more details about the upcoming class: 662-488-0308 or 662-234-9572. You may never get the definitive answer to your Why? or What?, but you will no doubt learn that others have coped with the same pains you feel and that you can do the same.

T.J. Ray is a retired professor of English at Ole Miss.