BY D. Beasley
One of the many services offered by the Kern County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is education for patients and their family members.
“(The course) talks about the different kinds of mental illness, the medications, how to communicate with someone who has a mental illness,” Coleen Peters, a 20-year volunteer with the organization, told the Kern Valley Sun.
Usually the classes are taught by “a family member who has walked the walk,” Peters said. “There is no book out there. It’s the school of hard knocks.”
One value of the classes is that “you hear other people’s stories,” Peters remarked. Sometimes spouses of patients or children of mentally ill parents will be grouped together in breakout sessions.
The course is approved by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a federal government agency.
NAMI also offers biweekly support groups for family members. Its volunteers serve as advocates for the mentally ill and their families on local and national issues. It offers hotlines for the mentally ill and their family members to call for resources and other help.
“About six years ago, I approached the director of Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services about a mental health court,” Peters said. “We got a team of psychologists together and worked with the judicial system and we put this together.”
It’s called the STAR court — Sustainable Treatment and Recovery. It’s an arduous program that requires participants to have professional therapy and regular meetings with the judge.
NAMI has also pushed nationally for Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement officers. In California, all new law enforcement officers must now undergo 20 hours of training, compared to the four hours they were receiving at the police academy.
“Here in Kern County, it’s a 40-hour course,” Peters said.
She noted that the mental health landscape is changing nationally.
“Twenty years ago, you never saw an ad for any psychotropic drugs,” Peters said. “Today, they’re all over television, in all the magazines. It’s becoming more and more acceptable, more and more talked about.”
But there are still many challenges.
“There is so much work to do to alleviate fear,” she said. “Mental illness is a spectrum. Just like a cold can be the sniffles or it can be double pneumonia. There are so many people who have mental illness and you would never know it because they have support from their family, their employer — and they have just as decent a life as the next person.”