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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Michael O'Neil, left, and Marilee Stroud will be teaching NAMI class.

Voices of experience

Learn about mental illness from fellow sufferers

In northeast Indiana, most people struggling with mental health or behavioral problems don't get help, according to a recent study by the Lutheran Foundation. Most, in fact, don't even know how to get help. You can't count Michael O'Neil or Marilee Stroud among them.

O'Neil and Stroud both have bipolar disorder. Untreated, that causes drastic mood swings, between mania and depression. But O'Neil and Stroud both have gotten treatment that has allowed them to stabilize.

Here is another way these two are not like those whose untreated mental health challenges were reflected in Lutheran's study: Rather than hiding or denying their problems out of misguided shame or fear, O'Neil and Stroud want to share what they've experienced and learned with others who struggle with mental problems.

On behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, O'Neil and Stroud will teach what they call a peer-to-peer “recovery course.” The free weekly sessions beginSept. 11 from 9:30 to11:30 a.m. at Plymouth Congregational Church; the class runs for 10 weeks.

They're quick to emphasize that though they've had training to present the course, they're not professionals, and that the classes are not meant to be a substitute for professional care. They will offer a survey of the solutions to mental problems, covering types of illnesses, therapies and medication, research, strategies for helping yourself and effective ways to interact with professional caregivers.

NAMI and other organizations offer group sessions for friends of family members. The peer-to-peer class is designed for people who know they have a problem. Those they want to reach, Stroud said, have received diagnosis and treatment before but need further care – “people who need just to get their bearings again.”

There are lots of resources in this community for those who suspect they have a problem, who are struggling with long-term illnesses or who are in a crisis.

Lisa Freeman, executive director of Mental Health America in Allen County, recommends that people seek guidance from a doctor or mental health provider who can help them address the problem.

“Treatment for depression,” she said, “depends on your symptoms – it can be situational or biological. For mild depression, counseling and self-care may be enough. The most effective therapy for moderate or severe depression is a combination of antidepressant medication and talk therapy.”

A healthy lifestyle – including eating right, getting enough sleep and exercise and “staying connected with others” – can help people deal with depression, she added.

O'Neil teaches those strategies and said he's used them to cope with his own disorder. Though he was at first misdiagnosed, O'Neilsaid, he's had symptoms of bipolar disorder all his life. “People with it get overly optimistic and overly pessimistic.

“How did I get well? Part of it was (joining) a NAMI group – I no longer felt like a freak.”

“Most people who need the course aren't ready to admit it,” O'Neil said when he launched a similar course last year.

Learning more about mental illness – learning to accept that it is a brain disorder, not a personal failing – is a step forward for those who sense that they need help.