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Columbus’ Annette Kleinhenz remembers feeling helpless dealing with her son’s mental illness. She said Caleb sometimes remained awake all night because he believed it was his literal responsibility to make the sun rise the next morning.
Such was his torment from schizoaffective disorder, a condition marked by loss of contact with reality and mood problems.
“There is a whole process to dealing with a diagnosis of mental illness,” Kleinhenz said. “Part of it is a grieving process.”
Kleinhenz wants to help area families with that process. Beginning Tuesday, the psychiatric nurse will lead a 12-week confidential class at the Bartholomew County Governmental Office Building to help relatives of the mentally ill cope better with their loved one’s situation.
That’s the idea behind “Family to Family,” a free, informal two-and-a-half-hour weekly course organized and sanctioned by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The class is aimed at conditions such as major depression, bipolar disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. It covers crisis management, medication, coping skills, problem solving and other topics.
Kleinhenz and husband Larry, a longtime Bartholomew County commissioner, saw their share of crises with Caleb, including in 2002 when he had to return home early from a Mormon mission in Taiwan because he knew something was horribly wrong. Extreme distraction and racing thoughts eventually would morph into hallucinations and hearing voices.
It took doctors a year to pinpoint his condition — one that left his parents and siblings clueless at the time.
He died at age 29 from a fall in March 2011.
A framed picture of Caleb rests just a few feet from the table where Kleinhenz sat in the family’s home discussing him and the upcoming classes. She knows that comfort and compassion from others helps plenty. But the woman who pursued the psychiatric nursing path after Caleb’s diagnosis also knows something more.
“Families are looking for answers,” Kleinhenz said.
That includes answers about:
Providing the right kind of understanding.
How to best communicate love and concerns to a loved one.
Greensburg’s Linda Ricke knows firsthand. One of her relatives was diagnosed with a mental illness years ago. Partly because of that, Ricke took training and led the most recent “Family to Family” class in Columbus in 1998.
“Living in a rural community, it’s still sometimes difficult to get people to come to this type of program,” Ricke said.
Kleinhenz and Ricke acknowledge that stigmas still loom large with mental illnesses. They said one false impression is that mental illness must be linked with violence or harm to others.
Ricke said that stigmas often become the very impediment that keep patients and families from help.
“Why is it OK to go to a doctor every time you have an ache,” said Ricke, “unless the ache happens to be with your brain?”
The pair believe the class is one way to wage that battle in a nation in which 25 percent of the population has a diagnosable mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Kleinhenz has seen that families facing mental illness deal with their share of guilt and anger about their plight.
“But it isn’t the fault of the person with the illness,” she said. “It isn’t the fault of bad parenting or some sin. It’s simply the fault of a brain that’s not functioning properly.”
Kleinhenz said the class is named “Family to Family” for a specific reason. She and her spouse enrolled in 2003 in Bloomington and learned plenty — and felt a bond with other participants.
“Much of it really is done family member to family member,” she said, because class members learn from one another. “There’s no feeling of intimidation. There is a very supportive component.”
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