Four years ago, Gloria Strother's brother suffered a psychotic episode in New York. She wanted to help, but she didn't know how.
She found the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), but the Pasco group didn't offer a family support class back then, so she found herself taking 60-mile round-trips to a class in Hernando.
It was worth every mile.
"The class helped me better understand how to advocate for him while he was in a state hospital," said Strother, 61, who lives in New Port Richey. It took several months for doctors to discover the right combination of medications for her brother, which is why her support was so important during that crucial time.
She had found her purpose. Soon she signed up to provide the training to other families dealing with mental illness.
"I feel like I've always been a person for the underdog," she said, "and I feel that education is the key."
Strother has provided information and emotional support to dozens of families over the years, earning a special place in their hearts — and now a spot in the NAMI Family-to-Family Hall of Fame.
Strother will be inducted today at the national organization's annual conference in Washington, D.C., where she will receive a plaque and recognition for her countless hours helping families touched by mental illness.
Nancy Whitener, now a member of the Pasco NAMI board of directors, first took Strother's class in 2007 after her stepdaughter was placed in a state hospital. She learned one enduring lesson:
"Gloria says to never give up hope."
Hall of Fame member
Strother works as a sales representative for a truss manufacturer. The Kansas native moved to Pasco County more than 30 years ago with her husband, Dorsey. They have a grown daughter and two granddaughters.
Strother recently taught her 10th Family-to-Family support class, which qualified her for the NAMI Hall of Fame. After providing the training to instructors, NAMI asks them to teach at least two 12-week courses. Most end up teaching four or five, said Lynne Saunders, NAMI's director of technical operations and special projects.
"It's a very emotional 12-week period for the participants and the teachers as well," Saunders said. "Our teachers are family members (of people with mental illness), so they know exactly the shoes that the members in the class are walking in. There's a lot of crying, sharing, laughter and awakening as relatives come to realize what their family member has been experiencing with mental illness."
Strother teaches participants about different antipsychotic medications and mental illness diagnoses, but she emphasizes the importance of communication skills, empathy and advocacy.
"It was a goal and I'm excited," Strother said of receiving the national award. "But getting the certificate is secondary to what I do. My reward for teaching the class is a sense of peace and relief it gives people."
NAMI, a nonprofit organization that just celebrated its 31-year anniversary, was founded by a family with a mentally ill child who wanted to promote awareness, education and advocacy. In addition to the Family-to-Family support class, NAMI and its affiliates offer NAMI Connections, a support group for adults living with mental illness, crisis intervention training and more.
Providing education and support has helped diminish the stigma associated with mental illness, Strother said.
"For a long time," Strother said, "it was thought that mental illness was the family's fault. People didn't want to talk about it. Now we know that some people are predisposed to mental illness."
In her family, there were no "warning signs" of her brother's illness, Strother said, but their mother experienced mental breakdowns after the birth of one child and the death of another.
But the NAMI training gave her perspective on her mother's struggles and how that affected her own childhood.
"After the class, I gained a sense of pride because I learned what she was dealing with and she really did a good job under the circumstances," Strother said. "I never felt like we had a mother-daughter bond, but I realized she just didn't have those emotions to give."
Family support key
Strother said having a supportive family "makes a big difference" in the life of a mentally ill person.
The people who have taken her classes say she exudes a positive attitude and empathizes with their situations. One recent graduate, Pat Delaney of Pasco County, said the class helped her cope with her daughter, who suffers from mental illness.
"My life before the class was non-existent," said Delaney. "It's the best thing I could have done. Gloria was excellent. She made me feel very comfortable."
Delaney said the class helped her to understand and deal with her daughter's actions and feelings.
"I learned to not let my daughter's actions make me upset and to not be angry with her, because it's not her fault," said Delaney, whose daughter did not exhibit signs of mental illness until early adulthood.
In addition to facilitating Family-to-Family support classes, Strother has been involved in crisis intervention training and was president of the Pasco NAMI chapter from 2007 to 2009.
"The bylaws say you can't do it any longer than that!" she said, laughing.
So what does her family think of her work with NAMI?
"I think my daughter is proud of it, my husband is proud, and I know my brother feels a strong connection with me," Strother said.