Mental health group helps make connections

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Mental health group helps make connections

By AMY COYNE BREDESON abredeson@islandpacket.com 843-986-5528
Published Tuesday, May 26, 2009 in The Island Packet  |  608 Words  |  lifestyle

The support groups offered by The National Alliance on Mental Illness have made a world of difference in the lives of many suffering from mental illness across the U.S.
Beaufort resident Glenn, who asked that her real name not be used, can attest to that.
Glenn, who suffers from major depression and generalized anxiety disorder, has attended Connection Recovery Support Group meetings every Wednesday night in Bluffton for more than a year. NAMI Beaufort County offers the Connection groups in Beaufort, Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island.
"I feel a lot stronger," Glenn said. "I feel a lot clearer about things. I don't get as anxious as I used to. I don't feel like there's nobody listening. ... I look forward to Wednesday nights."
Glenn said she struggled with her illnesses for many years before finally being diagnosed a few years ago. She said the medication and support group have made life liveable and even enjoyable for her.
"It makes all the difference in the world."
Connection groups are part of a national NAMI program aimed at providing a structured support group for people who are in recovery for mental illness. The meetings are led by people who also suffer from some sort of mental illness. NAMI's vision is that eventually there will be a Connection group within 20 minutes of anyone with a mental
illness.
Beaufort County Connection groups coordinator Sarah Kaminskas said members, or consumers as NAMI calls them, are asked to focus on their current struggles rather than lingering in the past. The program was designed by psychiatrists and psychologists and uses specific processes, such as group wisdom -- the thinking that a group can offer more well-rounded advice than an
individual.
"The most important aspect of Connection is the group wisdom component and problem solving because when you're able to sit down and share coping strategies and tools that work, that's a very important link toward recovery from active mental illness symptoms," Kaminskas said.
Kaminskas said each group has two co-facilitators who work together to lead the meetings. In order to become a Connection facilitator, a person must have a diagnosis of mental illness, must be in active recovery and must take a three-day Connection facilitator training course. Kaminskas -- who suffers from bipolar II disorder (often called manic depression), depression and anxiety -- trains all facilitators in the county.
Kaminskas said mental illness can be life shattering. And she knows firsthand. She said she lost her teaching career because of it. While working as a program assistant at NAMI a year and a half ago, Kaminskas became a facilitator because there was no Connection group in the county and she wanted to get one started.
John Hiers of Hilton Head, a Connection facilitator who has schizoaffective disorder, likes being able to help others deal with their mental illnesses. Hiers has been a NAMI consumer for about 15 years and said between his medications, his church and the support from NAMI, his life has changed a lot over that time.
"It helps me too because I can share with other people and we can understand each other," Hiers said.
NAMI Beaufort County executive director Susan Hughson said most people don't know who to call or what to do when they find out they have a mental illness. But she said help is out there -- from NAMI its Connection groups.
"NAMI is the friends," Hughson said, "and the support group is that group of people who you can cry with and laugh with and share heartaches and triumphs."