Family Support is Key When a Member is Hospitalized

Enduring a hospitalization as a result of a mental illness can be a traumatic experience not only for the patient, but for the family, as well. This is true whether it is a first hospital stay or one of many. In an effort to assist caregivers in their roles, Federation of Organizations, in conjunction with NAMI, offers the Family-to-Family education program in Suffolk County. This 12-week program, which is free for family members, partners and friends of individuals with mental illness, is structured to help caregivers understand and support individuals with serious mental illness while maintaining their own well-being.

The course is taught by trained NAMI family member volunteers who know what it is like to have a loved one struggling with a brain disorder. Subjects covered include how to take care of oneself in order to be able to take care of a loved one; medications; crisis management; empathy and understanding; available resources; and more. Having the information provided by people who have already lived through the same experience provides attendees with a different perspective than if the classes were taught solely by professionals. The ability to share experiences and solutions with others who have been in the same position – without fear of being judged – is a key element in the success of the group. Often, when a member tells the group about something that occurred, it is met with a response of “That happened to me, too,” followed by a discussion of how each family handled the situation, what worked, what didn’t work, etc. Ellen Tollefsen, NAMI member and group facilitator, noting the all-encompassing nature of the course, said, “I feel this course gives people everything they need to improve their lives and the lives of their family members.”

Because of the nature of the psychiatric hospitalization of a family member, notably that it is often against the will of the patient, or the patient may be in denial regarding his or her mental illness, the course includes such subjects as HIPAA laws and how important it is to have the patient sign a release form. If the patient is unwilling to do so, Tollefsen notes that it is important to speak with the doctor and either write a letter or speak with the patient’s social worker regarding symptoms and what behavior was observed prior to hospitalization. The empathy portion of the course touches upon the period of time after the family member’s hospitalization, explaining that the hospitalization can be both mentally and physically devastating, and that caregivers must allow their family member to “just be” for a period of time, rather than trying to encourage him or her to “snap out of it.” Being as prepared as possible for this occurrence enables the family to better endure the varying dynamics of a member’s psychiatric hospitalization.

For many attendees, the experience with the Family-to-Family group is the first time that they have had the opportunity to be with other family members of people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. The fear of the stigma associated with society’s views of mental illness is nonexistent within this group; rather, it is replaced with support and understanding. Often, when a family member is diagnosed with a mental illness, the resulting feelings for family members are anger, confusion and a lack of hope. Because of the resources provided by this group, these same people now know where to turn for information and support, which alleviates many of these negative feelings. In addition, being able to learn at least some of what to expect from people who have “been there” can help the family to better prepare and cope, thereby helping to improve their mental health during a family member’s hospitalization and in the future.

Many attendees also join Federation of Organizations’ family support group in order to maintain ongoing contact and support. This group, which meets the second Tuesday of each month, is less structured, and geared entirely toward support, rather than formal instruction. Attendees come to the group to share feelings and stories about things that may be going on at home, and are assisted in their coping by the other members who share resources and experiences. Federation’s family support group is facilitated by Tracy Falkner, LMSW, CPRP, Federation’s Director of Community Services and a facilitator of the Family-to-Family group.

For further information regarding the Family-to-Family group, please contact Deborah Mayo at 631-675-6831; for information regarding the family support group, please contact Tracy Falkner at 631-447-6460 x2124.

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