Donna Smith

Donna Smith holds up some of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill literature that's provided to those who take advantage of NAMI-Billings' free classes. A new seminar will be offered to friends and family of people dealing with mental health conditions. Providers are also welcome.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

When Donna Smith and other volunteers teach a class under the auspices of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, they are quick to tell participants that they’re not a doctor or a therapist or a social worker.

“But we’re people who have walked the same walk they’re in the middle of,” Smith said. “And I think that makes them feel like they can ask questions, they can open up and they don’t feel judged.”

On Saturday, Smith will teach a new four-hour seminar sponsored by NAMI-Billings called Family and Friends. It’s a way for people who have loved ones with mental health conditions learn about diagnoses, treatment, recovery, crisis preparation and NAMI resources.

The seminar, from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with a half-hour for lunch, is free. It will take place at the NAMI office, at 3333 Second Ave. N., Suite 150, in Billings, and people who plan to attend should register in advance.

The new offering is a pilot program through NAMI. Montana is one of just a few states invited to offer the seminar, and people who attend will be asked to evaluate it.

“We’ll make changes based on the evaluations, and hopefully it will become a staple offering,” Smith said.

The seminar can be a good introduction for people who aren’t familiar with NAMI.

“We can bring in people who are really in the midst of it and just desperate for help and try to be their lifeline,” she said. “Then we can tell them about other classes and support groups.”

Smith points out that people who have children are often filled with hope about their youngsters’ futures. They picture their offspring succeeding in school, getting married and even having children of their own.

“When you decide to have a child you’re always thinking in terms of the perfect child and the healthy child, the child who does well,” she said. “We don’t ever anticipate we’re going to have a child with a mental illness or a physical illness.”

When that happens, finding a place for help and support can be crucial. That’s why NAMI-Billings regularly offers free classes. They include:

  • Family to Family, a 12-week series of classes, 2 ½ hours per week, primarily for family members who either have a parent, spouse, adult child or sibling suffering from mental illness.
  • NAMI Basics, a six-week class, about 2 ½ hours per week, primarily for parents and family caregivers of children and teens, or young adults living at home, who are experiencing symptoms of mental illness or who have already been diagnosed.
  • Peer to Peer, a 10-session education program for adults with mental illness who are looking to better understand their condition and journey toward recovery.

“Peer to Peer is taught by two people as a team who also have mental illness but are in recovery,” Smith said. “So they’re capable of working with other people affected by similar issues.”

Up to 25 percent of the population in the United States have some sort of mental illness, “a lot more than people realize,” she said. It’s important to know that, properly diagnosed and treated, they can function in the workplace and in their personal lives.

Many are reluctant to make their conditions known, she said, because of the stigma often attached to mental illness. In contrast, most people who discover that a friend or relative has been diagnosed with cancer will offer to bring over a casserole or lend other kinds of support.

“Nobody does that when somebody is getting out of the psych center,” Smith said. “We’re afraid to tell somebody because of their reaction.”

Smith has spent many years caring for people dealing with mental health challenges. Her husband and both her daughters, now grown, have dealt with depression and attention deficit disorder.

She knows it can be difficult for people with depression to find the right medication to properly treat it. Sometimes, they have to deal with weeks of negative side-effects before the drug kicks in.

And sometimes, after a couple of years, the medication becomes less effective and the process starts all over again. Smith doesn’t just talk about these kinds of issues from a theoretical point of view.

Sharing real-life stories in class reminds those who attend they are not alone, she said. Her grown daughters also have been willing to speak to classes, relating their own experiences growing up.

And people in the classes find a commonality among themselves, as well.

“The friendships formed are very powerful,” Smith said.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.