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NAMI class aids families struggling with mental illness

Ruth Peterson’s experience helping her family navigate mental illness and health care runs the gamut. Peterson, formerly of Iowa City, raised five adopted children diagnosed with several mental illnesses. The children, now adults, grew up learning to cope with disorders and disabilities such as post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and narcolepsy.

After years of trial and error with doctors and treatments — struggles she hesitated to share with others — Peterson found the Family to Family class offered through Johnson County’s branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. The class offers support for family members of people with mental illness, providing information, help and a chance to connect.  “It was such a relief to know that we weren’t alone,” Peterson said. “… It was safe to share our feelings, our frustrations, our anger. … You could say it in that class, and it’s safe.”

The next class session starts Wednesday and meets weekly for 12 weeks at NAMI’s office, 1105 S. Gilbert St. Those interested can sign up by calling NAMI at 319-337-5400.

Peterson’s journey with adoption and mental illness began in 1983 when she and her husband adopted their only daughter, whose birth mother had mental health concerns. Eventually, doctors diagnosed Peterson’s daughter with OCD.

Their second adopted child, a son, came from an abusive home and struggled with ADHD, Peterson said.

At times, the combination of these disorders and other health concerns was overwhelming. Their daughter was hospitalized as a freshman in high school following a negative reaction to a combination of medications. During her stay, hospital staff placed her on suicide watch and separated her from her parents, Peterson said, adding that doctors suspended one of her drug treatments suddenly, which she believes triggered schizophrenic symptoms.

Although their parenting road was sometimes rocky, Ruth and her husband adopted three more sons who had mental illnesses, including ADHD and OCD.

“We said, ‘OK, we know how to deal with that,’ ” Peterson said.

For the most part, this was true, until the oldest turned 13, she said. The boys had recently lost a cousin and were shaken up after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then, the oldest came down with a persistent case of mononucleosis, a common virus, that inhibited his ability to walk and communicate. Doctors transferred him to a juvenile psychiatric unit, saying he had conversion disorder, a medical condition that creates physical symptoms from psychological stress. Peterson said doctors suggested a possible transfer to a treatment facility in Des Moines, but she feared an infection was actually affecting his brain. Although no doctor could confirm this, anti-viral medication cleared up his symptoms, Peterson said.

Even aside from these hospitalizations, doctor visits and medication assessments were part of their family’s everyday life.

“We made a lot of progress. We got all five of them through high school,” she said.

In 2008, a friend at Peterson’s church recommended the Family to Family class. The class offered a doorway to other parents who understood her experiences, Peterson said. She said she learned to practice self-care and set boundaries to promote the health of her entire family.

After the class, Peterson joined a supplementary Family Support Group through NAMI. The group meets Thursdays from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the NAMI office.

Patte Henderson, a local Family to Family teacher, said a founding principal of NAMI was removing parents’ stigma and shame associated with raising children with mental illnesses. She said it’s common for parents to avoid talking about their struggles, for fear of judgment.

The Family to Family class offers opportunities for parents, siblings and other family members to practice communication skills, role play and learn what it feels like to struggle with symptoms of illnesses like schizophrenia, Henderson said. The class follows a curriculum and offers lecture materials for participants to take home.

Henderson, whose own family members have wrestled with mental illness, said she would encourage people to take the class and learn as much as possible about mental health, including how to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

“For many people, it’s an opportunity to realize that you’re not alone,” she said.

If you go

What: NAMI’s Family to Family class. 

When: 9:30 a.m. to noon starting Wednesday, and meets weekly for 12 weeks.

Where: NAMI’s office at 1105 S. Gilbert St. 

Sign-up: Organizers ask those interested to sign up in advance by calling NAMI at 319-337-5400. 

Reach Holly Hines at hhines2@press- citizen.com or at 319-887-5414 and follow her on Twitter at @HollyJHines

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