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A Veteran Family Member’s Take on the NAMI Family-to-Family Program

by Nancy Alers, NAMI Baltimore

Nancy AlersI am a U.S. Navy veteran and a sibling of a younger brother living with schizophrenia. He was in the U.S. Army for a short period before he became ill after boot camp training.  My brother was in his fourth year of his illness before I heard about NAMI, and I still wish today that I had heard about NAMI when my brother first became ill. 

When I entered the classroom at the Baltimore Veteran Health Administration (VHA), there were 26 pairs of eyes looking at me. According to my referral from NAMI Metro Baltimore, this was a place I needed to be. Heads turned to the front of the room and one lady said, “We want to welcome you to the opening class of the NAMI Family-to-Family Education Course. We are very excited that this day has finally come and we can be together, family to family, for this new learning adventure.”  

At the F2F class at the Baltimore VHA, we were all female veterans who had come for information to help our ill family members. We bonded right away and every one of us completed the 12-week class. F2F provided an empathetic community that helped each of us feel less isolated and alone.  

Class six on empathy was my “ah hah! moment.” The class allowed me to let go of being frustrated about trying to “fix” my brother. By the end of the class, the way I saw the disease and dealt with it changed. The lessons learned from the class positively guide me in my interactions with my brother. 

NAMI and the Veterans Health Administration partnered one year ago to bring a F2F class to one VHA facility in each of the 49 states offering the program. To date, over half of the states have held a class.

I know first-hand about hiding the fact that you have a family member living with mental illness. I want other veteran family members to know that there is nothing shameful about it and that there are resources, like NAMI and F2F, to help you understand and support your loved one. Do not be afraid to come out and seek information. 

F2F will help you understand that mental illnesses are biological brain disorders. In a matter of 12 weeks, you will gain a better understanding of your relative’s experience. You learn so much from being among family members in similar situations that it validates what you are going through and what you are feeling. It is a life-changing experience!

To help the VHA facility get the word out about the course, I want all promotional materials to mention that the class is for veteran family members. When veterans first register at the VHA, I want information about the class in the welcome packet. I believe the orientation session for the veteran and family members is an excellent opportunity to learn about the course—I would have loved to receive information about F2F when I attended my orientation session.   

I recently became a certified F2F teacher and will teach my first class in the fall at the Baltimore VHA facility. I hope to inspire veteran family members by having someone like themselves talk about having a relative who lives with a mental illness.  

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