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BREAKING THROUGH THE DIN OF VOICES

Understanding how the mentally ill think is one key for families.

The voices made it difficult for Bill Thompson to concentrate.

The more he tried to do a task as simple as drawing a line on a piece of paper, the more mistakes he made.

That was three years ago, when Thompson and his wife Judy took the Family-to-Family courses offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Pasco County.

As part of the class exercise that night, about four of Thompson's classmates stood behind him speaking loud, random words to simulate what it's like for someone with schizophrenia. That experience was the first time he got a glimpse of what his daughter, Jennifer, was battling with her mental illness.

Flashbacks to the many arguments Thompson had with his daughter, later diagnosed as bipolar, went through his mind. Thompson remembered noticing how Jennifer tried to focus but couldn't.

The Thompsons now teach that same class through NAMI in Hernando County. The next set of free 12-week sessions, aimed at educating relatives and loved ones of those with mental illness, begins Aug. 16.

About 115,000 people in the country have taken the course - a valuable resource at a time when mental health services are not readily available.

"Bringing people into awareness is what so much of this is about," Bill Thompson, 67, said as he sat in the living room of his Spring Hill home next to Judy, 64. "It's not just, 'Well, why don't you pull yourself together and get over this.' There's so much more."

For the Thompsons, Family-to-Family opened up a new, more understanding world. Like many who find NAMI, they were in their hour of crisis.

The struggle with their daughter began when she was 15, and culminated when she was in her early 30s and living at home. The college graduate didn't want to take medication, and the family had lots of arguments.

Finally, Bill and Judy were forced to ask Jennifer to leave and move into a local women's shelter. Then they enrolled in Family-to-Family.

The curriculum includes information about all mental diagnoses except autism and Alzheimer's disease. Students learn about the biology of disorders, medications, treatments, the side effects of medications and ways to better communicate.

"We learned how to get to the emotion behind what a person is saying," Judy said. " 'I don't want to go to treatment' may really mean that it's uncomfortable and not easy. That way you can keep a person talking to get to the issue."

Family-to-Family also teaches loved ones how to become advocates for family members and friends with mental illness, and ways to find support wherever the ill person might live.

Through the 12 weeks of class, the Thompsons learned more about their daughter than they had in years. They not only could grasp what was going on inside Jennifer's mind, but also could now make sense of oddities they noticed - for example, why her bedroom "looked like a bag lady lived in there."

"That wasn't our style, and that wasn't her style," Judy said. "We couldn't figure out where it came from. We couldn't understand why she just didn't clean it up."

When she saw her parents trying to understand, Jennifer felt compelled to explain the bits and pieces of her life - like having trouble putting away items in her room because she thought they might not exist if she didn't see them.

"I did not have a clue that a brain disorder could generate that kind of behavior," Bill said. "And with that kind of ignorance, people are operating in the dark and making important decisions based on that."

With the knowledge also came the power to share what they learned with others. The Thompsons felt more comfortable talking about their family struggles with friends. They wanted to educate others about mental illness. Eventually, last fall, they became certified Family-to-Family teachers.

Anyone who teaches the course not only must go through NAMI training, but also must have taken the class.

"In the past, we felt totally overwhelmed and lost," Judy said. "You don't know what to tell yourself. Finally being able to have the knowledge and acceptances has given us strength. It's so liberating. Now we can share what we know with other families."

At 36, Jennifer now lives a stable life in Indian Rocks Beach on her own. She said drastic changes were made in her family when her parents joined NAMI.

"They taught me a lot," Jennifer said, "a lot more about tolerance and about looking at it as an illness. I know that I do have choice to remain stable and take my meds.

"There's a lot of shame in mental illness," she explained. "It's hard to accept. And then when you get all the underlying messages from society, such as 'change your thoughts' or 'just be strong,' it all makes it worse. I hope this wakes people up to the tragedy of untreated mental illness. Until people start having dialogue, they'll continue to be afraid."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

Fast facts

Mental illness in Hernando County

- 6.4 percent of adults 18 and older have reported experiencing psychological distress. The national figure is 3 percent.

- Suicide is No. 9 of the top 10 causes of death in the county. First on the list is heart disease, followed by cancer and respiratory disease.

- In 2004, psychosis was the No. 2 cause for hospitalization among county residents ages 18 to 64. For all age groups, it was No. 6, and accounted for the longest length of stay, over all other leading causes, at 7.5 days.

To view the Hernando County 2006 Health Needs Assessment Survey, go to http://www.hernando county.us/ Healthand HumanServices /pdf/2006HCHNA.pdf.

Source: Hernando County 2006 Health Needs Assessment Survey

Fast facts

Learn more

For information about Family-to-Family and NAMI Hernando, visit www.namihernando.org or call 686-0004 or 544-0352. A maximum of 20 people can take the Family-to-Family class; limited spots are still available.

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