Mental illness. It can be lonely, isolating and terrifying. And not only for the one suffering from the diagnosis, but also their loved ones.
Unlike a broken bone or blocked artery, mental illness is not a cut-and-dried diagnosis. And while mental illnesses have been stigmatized for years, the hope among many is that the trend is changing. For residents in North Idaho, the last decade has brought hope and support through NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Far North.
While there had been a NAMI chapter in Coeur d’Alene for many years, it was not until February of 2007 when five North Idaho residents came together and formed a local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness providing the hope that many in this rural area have long hoped for. Serving both Bonner and Boundary counties, the group offers support in a variety of ways including a crisis support phone line from 5pm to 8am daily and 24 hours on the weekends.
One of the many programs NAMI Far North offers is a monthly meeting, held the third Wednesday of the month at Bonner General Health. The meetings are educational and provide a support-group component for individuals who suffer from mental illness and also for their loved ones. They also host guest speakers on a variety of topics that relate to mental illness.
Coming together with those in similar situations can be very powerful and supportive. The isolation and stigma that can often accompany mental illness melts away.
For one local family, NAMI Far North provided the support they needed at an especially frightening time in their lives.
Dawn Mehra’s world was turned upside down when her son, Dustin, experienced his first manic/psychotic symptom at the age of 19 and was diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disease at the age of 21. With no history of diagnosed mental illness in their family, it came as a shock, especially since Dustin had always displayed exceptional social skills, completed high school with advanced academic and sports accomplishments, and by all accounts was living life as a normal teenager.
Dustin’s symptoms began during a time of stress in his life. He was living far away from home and experienced sleep deprivation for a period of about three to four days. “This was followed by auditory hallucinations, thought interruptions, delusional thoughts, attempting to hurt himself and changes in handwriting,” said Dawn. The symptoms persisted in waves with and without medication over a period extending four to five years, and there were many hospitalizations required depending on the severity.
Initially, the family was reluctant to share with others what was happening due to the stigma that sadly continues to surround mental illness.
“The general public doesn’t understand that serious mental health illnesses are actual diseases of the brain, often requiring medical and behavioral intervention,” explained Dawn. “The statistics show one in four humans suffer from some form of mental illness throughout their life. Yet, stigma still exists, perhaps due to a combination of factors—lack of education, fear of prejudice, treatment failures and of course the lack of foreclosure from patients who suffer.”
One way in which Dawn sought help was through the local chapter of NAMI Far North. There, she received support, compassion, education and even legal help.
“I attend the support groups and stay connected to NAMI’s political feats,” said Dawn. “The group is growing as more family members climb out of the ‘stigma cloud.’”
She and her family learned from NAMI that there is hope for a full recovery and a bright future. She also learned the importance of maintaining a good sense of humor, that it is critical to be patient and to remember it is the journey of the one who suffers from mental illness.
Dustin has made a remarkable recovery, which Dawn says she credits to a number of things including the love, patience, support and guidance provided by family, finding the appropriate medication for Dustin and the abundance of resources available through NAMI Far North. “And community support. Our friends were amazing,” she said gratefully.
Dawn said the journey was difficult and the frustration of not having the knowledge to navigate the mental health system was extremely challenging. Her hope is for a stigma-free future that places community facilities in even the most rural towns in an attempt to bridge the gap of care.
Another way that NAMI Far North is making a difference locally is through its work with local law enforcement. In conjunction with Bonner County Sheriff’s Office, NAMI Far North sponsors the Crisis Intervention Training, a program that assists law enforcement officers with learning how to diffuse a situation when someone with mental illness is a threat to themselves or those around them.
Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon began sending his officers through the Crisis Intervention Training program when he first took over his role in 2013.
“Mental health has become more of a priority in recent years,” said Chief Coon of his decision to send as many officers as possible to the training.
One aspect of the 40-hour course involves officers putting on headphones and listening to multiple voices coming at them at once. They are then given a simple task to perform while trying to block out the voices. It gives them a very clear idea of what people with mental illness go through, especially in a crisis situation.
Education is also an important component of NAMI Far North’s mission. Studies have shown that when people follow their prescribed therapy and take their proper medication, 70 to 90 percent of those with mental illness improve. In other words, while not curable, it is a disease that is treatable.
Dustin and his family are just one example of how support from the community and through the mental health system can help one diagnosed with mental illness live a full and complete life. And if there is one thing Dawn hopes for, it is that people will educate themselves about mental illness.
“Humans’ brains are ever changing. Environmental and genetic factors put us all on a fine line of what we consider ‘normal’ behavior. We as a globe need to accept that the people on either side of the bell curve have a valuable place in society. Removing the stigma from our society will relieve so much suffering and may just end up with more patients receiving the love and care they need to recover,” said Dawn.
She encourages people to be patient with their expectations and to remember that the brain takes years to heal. “The sooner you can convince family, friends, your family member to seek treatment, the better the prognosis, as the brain becomes familiar and quickly wires to whatever state it is in the longest,” said Dawn. “And most important, take advantage of a family member’s lucid/clear state—go get a professional psychological evaluation. This is a four- to eight-hour session performed by a psychologist and often involves two sessions and some testing. Family members are usually brought in to parts of the evaluation.”
Whether you or a loved one has been newly diagnosed or have been living with mental illness for a long time, there is hope—and it is right here in our community in the form of NAMI Far North. To learn more, visit their website at NAMIFarNorth.org