Family members are often the first to notice signs of mental illness in a loved one, and in many cases they hold the key to unlocking treatment. One local nonprofit is helping them cope with the impact of mental illness on the whole family and showing them how to be better advocates for the long haul.
Vince Petreikis was proud when his young adult son left their New Orleans home to chase his dreams.
“He was a very creative individual, a very intelligent individual. He wanted to be Steven Spielberg — writer, producer, director. He went out to California,” the father recalls.
But soon, the reports coming back from his son were veering badly off script. There was a break-up with his girlfriend and he had trouble keeping a job. During one phone call he’d sound depressed, and almost manic during the next. Eventually he was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His son started getting treatment. But Petreikis realized he needed help too.
“When this occurs in the family, it’s not just the individual having the illness, but the whole family is affected by that,” Petreikis says. “If you don’t have the answers, you go to a location that you can seek answers. And NAMI was that bright light at the end of the tunnel for me.”
NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the New Orleans affiliate is part of network of organizations across the country that support adults with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other serious conditions. Critically, NAMI helps their families too.
“The biggest resource a person with mental illness has is their family,” says Lisa Romback, executive director of NAMI in New Orleans, which last year served about 1,000 individuals and 180 families. She says family members are instrumental in detecting signs of mental illness and helping their loved ones find help. But even for the most committed family, this can be a rough road. Treatment often entails a complex cocktail of medications — 6, 8, 10 different pills, taken several times a day — and they can carry serious side effects, like major weight gain. It can be hard to keep someone on track. And thanks to the social stigma that persists around mental illness, Romback says individuals and families may be dealing with an illness for years before seeking help.
“So by the time a family member gets to us, they have really been through the wringer,” she says. “They’ve been to hospitals, they’ve maybe helped their family member get out of jail. They are really worn out. And so what we try to provide is the support that they family needs to kind of stay the course.”
NAMI does this by connecting families to medical specialists, social workers and one-on-one counseling. The group has produced a comprehensive resource guide, with help from recognizing symptoms to understanding patients’ rights. And NAMI taps the power of families facing similar issues to help and learn from one another. There’s a 12-week education program, led by trained family caregivers, and ongoing support group meetings to share stories, ask questions and gather strength. For Petreikis this sort of help is making all the difference.
“You feel as though this is something unique that’s happening to you that you can not understand,” he says. “But when you are sitting with a group of individuals you realize that yes, I am not alone. Many people are experiencing the same situations that I am. To me they’re very traumatic, and the families are affected traumatically because of this. But you’re not alone.”
Learn more about NAMI at www.namineworleans.org.