by Dennis Dalman
Mike Stringer knows all too well the tragedies that can happen when mental illness goes untreated. One of his grandfathers, an uncle and a cousin all committed suicide.
More than 90 percent of those who take their own lives suffer from untreated mental illnesses, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The suicides in the Stringer family were the impetus for Stringer to take a 12-week course entitled “Family-to-Family,” taught by Steve and Wendy Hennes of Sartell at Unity Spiritual Center, also in Sartell.
After taking that course, Stringer helped form the St. Cloud Family Support Group, which is for family members, friends and caregivers who live or deal with people who have mental-health issues. The group is not religiously affiliated. Anyone from anyplace is welcome to attend the group. Some come from as far away as Little Falls. The group meets from 7-8:30 p.m. the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month at Calvary Community Church, 1200 Roosevelt Road, St. Cloud.
There was also a family support group at the Unity Spiritual Center, but that recently relocated to Albany.
Those are just two support groups sponsored by NAMI throughout the nation and in the greater St. Cloud area by way of NAMI, St. Cloud. NAMI’s “Connections” groups, as they’re called, can be specialized to meet specific needs. For example, there is one just for the parents of children suffering from mental illness. Another group is meant for social workers and school personnel to help them identify and get help for school students who may be experiencing some form of mental-health disorder.
The purpose of NAMI nationally, statewide and locally is to improve the lives of children and adults with mental illnesses, along with their families. A big part of that effort is to raise awareness and educate the general public so the stigmas often associated with mental illness can be laid at the wayside, making it more likely people and their families will seek help when it is needed.
That is the reason Stringer became involved. He is not only a support-group coordinator, but he also serves on the NAMI St. Cloud Board.
“Mental illness can be an isolating experience,” Stringer said. “For many caregivers, the NAMI Family Support Group is their first opportunity to learn there are other caregivers who are experiencing similar challenges and frustrations. Our groups provide a social-support network that is a vital part of recovery for families and their loved ones.”
The group, Stringer noted, offers support, education, advocacy and information so people can learn how to best cope with ways to help loved ones and friends suffering from mental-health problems.
The need to de-stigmatize the topic of mental illness is also what inspired the Henneses of Sartell to become involved in NAMI. Steve Hennes’s father committed suicide many years ago after suffering from a lifetime of untreated mental-health issues, including severe depression. The Henneses decided to teach the Family-to-Family course in Sartell, a way to train facilitators who can then go on to teach the course themselves and/or to coordinate various kinds of support groups. Recently, Steve and Wendy Hennes hosted a brainstorming session at their home. They invited legislators, who participated in a discussion on things the legislature might do to help in the fight against mental illness. Stringer is one who attended that meeting, along with Sen. Michelle Fischbach, Reps. Tim O’Driscoll and Jeff Howe; and Stearns County Commissioner Mark Bromenschenkel. Sartell Police Chief Jim Hughes discussed the challenges law enforcement faces when dealing with people suffering from mental-health issues and how to best get them the help they may need. Other participants included some Sartell residents who talked about the challenges of family members who have mental illnesses.
Matt Burdick of NAMI Minnesota facilitated the discussion at the Hennes home.
“That evening we let a light shine on a subject that affects each of us,” Wendy Hennes later wrote in a letter to editor (see Opinion page today). “We helped the light break through the clouds of stigma that surround mental health/mental illness. We took a step to let the light shine on treatment, housing, employment and making lives better for those who live with mental illness.”
Stringer and those involved with the NAMI groups are determined to spread the good word – that mental illness is treatable, that help is widely available and that there is a slow but gradual decrease in the stigmas associated with mental illness.
Every month or so, Stringer and others distribute small folded cards to hospitals, clinics, law-enforcement centers and counseling services centers. The cards contain resource and information numbers to call, including crisis-hotline numbers.
Those key numbers are these:
To reach a four-county (Benton, Sherburne, Stearns, Wright) crisis-response team, call 1-800-635-8008 or 320-253-5555.
To reach NAMI St. Cloud, call 320-654-1259 or visit its website: www.namistcloud.com.
A good website for learning how to help de-stigmatize mental illness is www.Makeitok.org.
For the national Suicide Prevention Hotline, call 1-800-273-1259.
The NAMI information card also gives 14 tips for de-escalating situations in which loved ones or even strangers are dealing with people undergoing mental-illness crises. Here are the tips:
1. Start low-key.
2. Put assertive tendencies aside at the beginning.
3. Do not disagree with psychotic thinking. Instead, offer your support.
4. Don’t try to reason with a person in psychosis.
5. Speak and act slowly and clearly, using simple sentences.
6. Avoid quick movements.
7. Keep the stimulation level low.
8. Ask casual observers to leave.
9. Give the person space; avoid touching.
10. Do not shout.
11. Avoid continuous eye contact.
12. Sit to the side of a person who is paranoid.
13. If handcuffing is policy, explain the policy.
14. If suicide is a concern, ask!
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.