Writing about one’s self is always a tricky business. Well, I live with Recurrent Major Depression; there is also mental illness in my close relatives. I hold a Master of Science degree in Community Mental Health; I am also a Registered Dietitian. Together, my husband Jim and I have raised two grown children.
For 20 years I taught NAMI’s family education classes in Wisconsin, trained others to teach them, and worked with a fine and dedicated core of volunteer teachers to reach out to families of those suffering from mental illnesses.
So here’s a lightly edited version of an article I wrote after receiving NAMI Wisconsin’s 2014 “Claire Ryan Award for Distinguished Service in Family Education.” Hopefully here you will be able to see who I am and some of what I’m passionate about.
. . . A word about Claire, the award’s namesake: She was both a gifted teacher and professional and compassionate trainer, whose greatest quality was her ability to be empathic. Claire would listen to and truly appreciate the many difficult and deeply felt family stories she heard. You could tell Claire anything and know you were understood. She inspired teachers. Happily, she and I were a training team many times. Claire died from pancreatic cancer in 2007. I felt blessed to have called her friend and colleague.
My interest in mental illness and family education began with my family.
My father had major recurrent depression. It struck in his mid-thirties, when I was 8 years old, and persisted throughout his life. Dad passed away in 1996 of diabetes and I respect and appreciate him and his struggle today.
In the 1950’s, as a result of a suicide attempt with a shotgun, Dad was committed to Mendota Mental Health Institute for several months. DEEP shame was felt by this proud Dane Co. farmer and his family. Plus there was a lot of anger, hurt and confusion among the older children. But nobody in or outside of my family talked about what had happened. It was always the skeleton in the closet.
Major depression recurred over the years, as did suicide attempts. Verbally abusive behavior from Dad towards his family came and went in cycles and criticism knew no bounds. The silence continued.
It was hard growing up. I knew somehow that there were other ways, and better ways, for families to handle the crises and chaos of daily life with a major mental illness.
Then I became ill with mental illness. Without a good example to follow, I struggled.
In 1992 I learned of NAMI and joined. At the time I was a lecturer in Dietetics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and had been for 16 years. Already I believed deeply in education. I’d seen first-hand the changes education could make in helping people live healthier and more satisfying lives. So I volunteered to be on the NAMI Dane Co. Education Committee. One day the phone call came: Was I interested in teaching Journey of Hope (JOH) -the original name for Family to Family- ? “YES!”
This was the summer of 1993, and NAMI WI was holding its first JOH training. There would be 18 of us trained from around the state; the first teachers in Wisconsin, including Donna Murdoch, a dear friend.
It was an outstanding weekend and a once in a lifetime experience: We were trained entirely by Dr Joyce Burland, the author and creator of JOH. We were immersed in this material with her. I felt and learned more about mental illness and families than I previously believed possible. I was inspired by Joyce Burland and my fellow trainees to be the best teacher I could be. Moreover, I now had guidelines for how to live with mental illness myself and how to help my family live with my father’s mental illness.
In the fall of 1993, Donna Murdoch and I held the first JOH class in Dane Co. We had placed a brief article in the affiliate newsletter announcing the class and had 148 inquires, an overwhelming response. We established a waiting list.
Claire Ryan was a student in that first class we held. She took the training from us and became one of our first state-trained teachers. After I had taught a second class, I elected, along with Trudy Cizek, to take training as a JOH trainer. This class was to be in St Louis. We were to be trained along with others from all over the United States. Again, Dr Burland conducted the training solo. She was spell-binding. The training was another outstanding experience—-imagine learning how to train new teachers for JOH in one weekend! Trudy and I left the St Louis class energized and committed to making our teacher trainings just as professional and compassionate. In 1994 Trudy and I held the first NAMI WI-led training; Claire took For the next three years, I both taught Family to Family for NAMI Dane Co. (as the JOH program was now called) and trained its teachers for NAMI WI. In 1997, following the pioneering work of Nancy Abraham, I volunteered as the second state program director. During this period, FtF and I got tremendous support from then NAMI WI Executive Director, Donna Wrenn. I continued to train teachers for some time.
My volunteer post became a part-time paid position in 2009, so I was able to devote much more of each week to family education programming. A statewide directory of teachers was established. I created a marketing plan. I initiated regular contact via email with teachers. There were teleconferences and special Family Education Newsletters. Basics and Family Support Group programs were added as time passed.
In 2009 my dream came true……… I was given a small budget to put on the first NAMI Wisconsin Teacher Leadership Summit (TLS), which I created and implemented. My goal was to recognize all teachers for their outstanding volunteer teaching roles in Family Education and to provide a platform for networking and continued learning. Jo Anderson, a retired Family to Family teacher, first joined me as a TLS volunteer in 2011, when our Keynote Speaker was Dr. Joyce Burland! I am deeply grateful for the professional expertise Jo brought to the TLS. She was also a sounding board to me and provided great encouragement.
And that’s not all! Programs expanded; Family to Family was reaching 600 participants in 30 classes per year. Over 100 teachers were trained, coming from many affiliates state wide. Basics and Family Support Groups continued to be offered. True communities of committed teachers and families were being served!