FAIRFIELD — Residents of southeast Iowa who are going through a mental health crisis, or have a family member who is, should know they are not alone. There are people in the community ready to give them comfort and support.
In fact, there are even free educational mental health services through an organization called NAMI, short for National Alliance on Mental Illness. NAMI has certified teachers in Washington, Henry and Jefferson counties who lead free classes for those with mental illness or those caring for them.
Diana Kendros and Jan Sickler are two Fairfield residents who have been involved with the organization for five years, and just became certified national teachers last year. The two of them lead classes in Jefferson and Keokuk counties specifically for those who support people with mental illness.
“Education reduces the stigma and helps people understand it really is an illness, not just a behavior disorder,” Kendros said. “We want siblings or parents to understand what their loved ones are going through.”
Before the pandemic hit, people drove from far and wide to attend NAMI’s courses in Fairfield. They came from Washington, Ottumwa and even as far as Des Moines. Courses range in length from six to 12 weeks, and are free to enroll in. Kendors and Sickler normally get between 15-20 people per class.
“That’s pretty large considering that people are coming to the class every week in the evening to learn,” Kendros said.
Unfortunately, now the pandemic has prevented Kendros and Sickler from holding their normal classes. However, they are still reaching members of the public through NAMI’s newsletter and its online resources such as webinars. NAMI also runs a podcast called “Conversations for Hope” where they interview people telling stories about mental health and mental illness, how they’ve been coping, and what resources are available to them. Sickler writes a bimonthly column on support programs, too.
“We want to give people an understanding of what they can plug into during a pandemic,” Kendros said.
Kendros and Sickler are performing volunteer roles. They said they do this out of a passion for the subject matter, and because they know how hard is it for people to cope with these problems.
Sickler remarked, “The most important and powerful benefit people gain from this course is sitting around with others who have gone through the same experiences, the same stages of trying to cope with mental illness in their family. It’s an amazingly transformative experience.”
NAMI creates videos for these classes to help attendees understand how mental illness is a brain disorder. The videos go through various types of medications, their effect on the brain, and why some work and others don’t.
The phrase “mental illness” is broad. What exactly do the teachers mean by it? What conditions does it cover? Kendros said it refers to any psychological problem ranging from mild depression to suicidal thoughts. Oftentimes, it refers to a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Kendros said her son was bullied so badly at the age of 11 that eventually the bullying exploded into an attack, a traumatic event that changed his brain chemistry. He became suicidal, psychotic and had visual and auditory hallucinations.
“It took us four years to find the right combination of medications to work, to balance his brain chemistry,” Kendros said. “We got him the right doctor, the right environment in a new school, and he healed. He’s now 23 and in recovery.”
Kendros and Sickler said they want to make clear that they are educators, not mental health professionals.
“When someone calls us in crisis, we refer them to a mental health crisis hotline,” Kendros said.
The NAMI help line can be reached Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. central time, at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or email@example.com.
For more information on NAMI’s local activities, or to sign up for the newsletter, email Kendros at firstname.lastname@example.org.