Real-life support for parents of children with mental illness

One of Dawn Schneider’s sons was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation by the time he was four years old. When he reached the age of eight, his condition worsened until its impact created a full-blown family crisis.

Even now, at 14, he still grapples with mental illness, Tourette syndrome, learning disabilities, and a number of receptive and expressive disorders.

“It was really stressful, and very lonely. It’s very hard to relate to,” Ms. Schneider said by phone Monday. “He has a fairly typically developed twin who was doing typical kid things at eight, but Curtis was not. It was hard — in the midst of extreme mental crisis with a child — to really relate to typical parents.”

Ms. Schneider, who lives in Stamford, found her first relief from this loneliness in a support group organized by the, eventually becoming the first volunteer to bring the organization’s children-focused group to southwestern Connecticut.

Now, along with Sheryl Kayne of Weston, Ms. Schneider is helping bring NAMI’s Child and Adolescent Network support group (NAMI-CAN) to the Gilbert & Bennett Cultural Center in Georgetown on the fourth Monday of every month from 10 to 11:30 a.m.

The first support group meeting was held on Monday, July 28. The next will take place  Monday, Aug. 25.

“A support group provides you the information you need in terms of who to turn to,” Ms. Kayne said Tuesday. “The people in the support group are going through similar situations. Sometimes very similar situations. It’s a group of people with knowledge beyond your own.”

Every NAMI-CAN support group is open to parents and caretakers of children who have been diagnosed with mental illness. They focus specifically on issues related to children from the time they are born until they reach 18 years old, while other NAMI support groups focus on adults with disabilities.

In Wilton last month, Ms. Kayne said the support group turnout was “heartwarming.”

“People came who had never been to anything like NAMI,” she said. “There were a few different needs. One parent had a younger child, and a couple were parents of teens.”

Both Ms. Kayne and Ms. Schneider said support groups have two important goals, to remind parents and caregivers they are not alone in their lives, and to help fill information gaps.

“This is a place where you don’t have to explain much,” Ms. Schneider said. “The parents know exactly what you have been going through. It’s helpful having someone validate your experience and say, “‘No, you’re not crazy, too. These things are happening, and they are very hard to contend with. This is what I did, maybe it will help you?’”

Ms. Schneider also said NAMI-CAN provides an environment where family members feel like they can “breathe” for the first time in a long while.

“I can’t stress enough how alone families feel when they’re going through these situations. Just getting into a room with others in similar situations allows you to breathe. There is comfort here you cannot find with a therapist, or a compassionate family member, simply because it’s not a shared experience with them.”

Among the knowledge shared among peers at NAMI-CAN support groups is information on school services, Connecticut’s 211 service, and much more.

“People need to know what is available here in Connecticut,” Ms. Kayne said. “And they also need to know how to find the people that they need, and to know what their school needs to be providing.”

In addition to the NAMI-CAN support group in Wilton, Ms. Schneider also runs two in Stamford. One takes place on the first Thursday of every month from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 884 Newfleld Avenue, and the second is held the second Tuesday of every month from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at Conference Room B, Tully Health Center, 32 Strawbery Hill Court.