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Just as it is comforting to people living with mental illness to know that they are not alone, their families, friends and caregivers also need encouragement to persevere as they assist their loved ones.

“Support is the No. 1 thing,” Barbara Friell of La Crosse said was the most valuable lesson she learned when she participated in the Family-to-Family Education Program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness several years ago.

“I mean by that knowing that other people out there are experiencing the same things with family members and friends,” said Friell, who took NAMI’s training course last spring to become one of the facilitators of the course next month.

The La Crosse County NAMI chapter will sponsor the free, 12-week course for family members, significant others and friends of adults living with serious mental illnesses from 6:30 to 9 p.m. on Mondays from Sept. 12 to Nov. 28. The sessions will take place in the community education room of Gundersen Health System’s Green Bay Building at 914 Green Bay St. in La Crosse.

Friell decries the negative connotations that have been assigned to the term “mental illness,” creating a stigma.

“It is a brain disease, and it shouldn’t have the stigma,” she said.

Her sentiments echo those of experts in the field in recent years who insist that those with various forms of the disease should be treated as respectfully as people coping with illnesses such as heart disease, cancer or any other ailments instead of being marginalized as they had been in the past.

More than 300 people have graduated from the course since it was introduced in La Crosse in 2004. Nationwide, more than 300,000 people have graduated.

Comments from two others who have taken the course attest to the program’s value:

“Before I took this course, I felt so alone and overwhelmed. I have learned valuable information, met others who are going through the same thing I am going through, and have learned about many resources that are available that I never knew existed.”

“Had I taken this class 20 years ago, it may have changed the course of my life and family.”

The program includes information about depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Instructors will demonstrate coping skills such as handling crisis and relapse, listening and communication techniques, problem-solving skills and recovery and rehabilitation.

Other facets of the brain disease to be covered include:

  • The latest information about medications, side effects and strategies to adhere to medications.
  • Research related to the biology of brain disorders and the most effective, evidence-based treatments to promote recovery.
  • Techniques to empathize with patients by understanding how they experience life.
  • Strategies to help handle potential crises and relapses.

The course also will address the particular needs of caregivers to help them cope with worry, relieve stress and avoid emotional overload.

Although the course is free, class size is limited, and registration is required.

For more information or to register, call Barbara at 608-385-7595 or David at 608-769-6037, or send an email to

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Mike Tighe is the Tribune newsroom's senior citizen. That said, he don't get no respect from the cub reporters as he goes about his duly-appointed rounds on the health, religion and whatever-else-lands-in-his-inbox beats. Call him at 608-791-8446.

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