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Peer-taught classes serve those affected by mental illness

Ami Mitchell is holding workshops
Ami Mitchell, volunteer program director of NAMI Winchester, is holding workshops to help assist families and victims of mental illness. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Jessica Wiant - jwiant@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- While some local services for people with mental illnesses are seeing cuts, one organization is looking to fill the rising need with classes for mental illness sufferers and their families.

NAMI Winchester, recently named the best NAMI affiliate in Virginia, will begin a 10-week Peer-to-Peer program and a 12-week Family-to-Family program this week.

Demand is exploding for mental health services, according to Ami Mitchell, the director of NAMI Winchester's educational programs. NAMI stands for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Mitchell cites a rollback of services offered by Valley Behavioral Health and funding cuts at Northwestern Community Services among the reasons.

While NAMI's group of trained volunteers are not clinicians or psychiatrists and don't offer therapy, she says, they all can boast that they have been in the same boat as the population they are serving.

The Peer-to-Peer class is open to adults who have a mental illness and is led by trained mentors who are recovering from mental illness, she says.

"You don't have someone preaching to you who doesn't understand," she says. "They're all peer-taught programs."

Likewise, the Family-to-Family class is for family members of adults with mental illness and is led by close family members of someone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness.

That's exactly how Mitchell herself became involved with NAMI. Her husband, she says, has dealt with crippling episodes of psychosis, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. She heard about the Family-to-Family program and signed up.

The class helped her with common struggles, like self-doubt, handling her loved one's medications and how to communicate with therapists.

Within the first week of the program, participants receive a "crisis file" of community resources, she says.

"I was so impressed with the class I wanted to teach it," she says.

Since then, Mitchell has gone through the training, taught the class and is now directing all of NAMI Winchester's education programs.

"It's a real grass-roots [effort]," she says. "You grow people up through the program."

Connie Nutter, who formerly served as program director, also came to NAMI as a family member. The organization provides an outlet to serve when people get to a certain stage of recovery, she says, and that helps build self-confidence.

Both the family and peer programs offer a "toolbox" or resources for people dealing with mental illnesses, Mitchell says. The nationwide organization's goal is to educate, advocate and provide information and support for individuals and families affected by mental illness, she says.

While the classes are structured, with different topics each week, they also serve as a kind of support group where participants can share as much or as little as they are comfortable doing, she explains. Classes are laid-back and held in an informal setting as well.

"It busts the stigma of mental illness," Nutter says.

The Family-to-Family program that begins this week will be the first offered this year. It will begin on Wednesday from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Winchester Medical Center.

The program aims to help families cope with mental illness "because it can be devastating," she says.

The Peer-to-Peer program will be held for the second time this year beginning Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Valley Health System Building in Front Royal. In that class, participants work on developing a relapse prevention program detailing triggers and strategies to deal with them.

Both classes are free, but preregistration is required.

"We receive really good feedback on the programs," Mitchell says.

Initially, however, people can be hesitant to participate in a group. Small class sizes help, she says, and most people feel better once they get started.

"They are the experts," she says. "They are the heroes."

Funding for the classes is provided in part by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. Mitchell also thanks Valley Health for providing space for the programs.

NAMI Winchester offers regular support groups and periodic educational programs. For more information about the services offered by NAMI Winchester or to preregister for the programs that begin this week, call 533-1832 or e-mail namiwinchester@live.com


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