Garner Cleveland Record

Support group helps families understand loved ones’ mental illness

Yvonne Johnson’s world had come crashing down when she found out her daughter was trying to commit suicide.

It was five years ago, and the phone was ringing at six o’clock in the morning. It was her son-in-law. He said he believed his wife was going to try to harm herself. Her daughter, who was 37 at the time, was living Virginia, and she in Fuquay-Varina. She immediately packed her bags and rushed out the door.

“I called my husband and said I have to pack and go,” she said.

The six-hour drive would have taken too long so Johnson called her best friend, who didn’t live far from her daughter, and asked her to see if police were there. When Johnson’s friend got there, she was the first to arrive. She was able to get in the house and talk to her.

She had cut her wrist.

After police finally arrived they took her to the hospital.

“We were just at a total loss,” Johnson said. “It came as a shock to us. I really had no answers. I didn’t know where to begin. You immediately think I should have known, I should have seen it coming.”

After searching for an answer for a little more than a year, she learned about a free class and support group, National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Family-to-Family classes. The 12-week course provided them support, taught them communication skills, how to deal with mental illnesses and how to see the signs, Johnson said.

The class had such an impact she became an instructor.

“Before I even finished that class I knew I wanted to become an instructor,” Johnson said. “It was a life-changing experience for us for sure. So I want to give back. I know where I was when my daughter tried to commit suicide and I don't want anybody else to be there.”

Providing support

What did I do wrong?

How could I not see it coming?

How can I help her?

Those are the questions Johnson said she asked herself after the incident. They’re among the many questions other families, who also have loved ones dealing with mental illnesses, have.

Johnson’s daughter suffers from depression and bipolar disorder.

When someone in the family has a mental illness, it affects the whole family, Johnson said. What made it tougher was that her daughter was an adult. Communication is tough. That is where the classes came in and that is what she tries to teach.

Lois Childs and her husband took the class last year looking for support after a member in their family struggled with a a mental illness. They tried everything. She saw counselors. She read books. But nothing worked.

After years she finally learned about the classes and went. They helped her tremendously, she said.

“You feel finally that you are in a place where people get you and understand what you’re dealing with,” Childs said. You receive incredible direction on how to maneuver some of the things we were dealing with. I made my husband go. He did not want to go. And by the end of the first class he was totally committed and happy to go. Happy that he got dragged.

“It doesn’t solve your problems but it gives you very realistic tools to get through a day or crisis.”

Johnson said most of the people who attend her classes have never talked about their family member’s illness because of the stigma attached to it.

“The stigma of mental illness is a reality,” she said.

Johnson has a sign in her class that reads “Walk a day in my mind and you’ll understand.”

“You cannot wish away their mental illness in any way,” she said. “All you can do is be there for them. That’s all you can do. They are people who want a normal life and don't have it.”

This is the 20th year NAMI of Wake County has offered the classes and the fifth year Johnson has taught them. She teaches them twice a year. The first session will be in March.

“I do it to give back,” she said. “Because the lifeline for my husband and I was NAMI.”

Staff writer Mechelle Hankerson contributed to this report.