This fall the NAMI Family-to-Family Education course celebrates its nineteenth year in the field. Developed by NAMI-Vermont in 1990, the course is now taught by over 7,000 trained NAMI volunteers in 49 states, four large municipalities, two provinces of Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Italy. To date, 200,000 family members have graduated, and the project is constantly expanding across the nation. As one commentator on the NAMI scene said to me, "Wow! This program has really got legs!"
I appreciated the show-biz expression signifying that public enthusiasm and word-of-mouth can give wings to a project when it is "right for its time" and touches a submerged human need. Such is the case with NAMI's family education program-the first in this century to reach out to thousands of family members on a continuing basis, the first to fully acknowledge the trauma and heroism in their lives, the first to lead family caregivers through pain and stigma to emotional understanding, clinical insight, healing and action.
The NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program entrusts education to NAMI members who are, by any measure, the most advanced self-educated lay population in modern medicine. The goals of this peer program are radical; they go far beyond the traditional curriculum of illness information and behavioral training. Although the course is rich in clinical detail, our primary mission in education involves orchestrating a transformation from personal devastation to action and power.
To serve this end, we have over the years defined our own brand of family education. Here are the specific features of the course that families tell us are life-changing:
EMOTIONAL UNDERSTANDING AND HEALING (PERSONAL REALM)
Guaranteeing a safe, protective place where family members can debrief the traumatic events and feelings they have experienced (Speaking Pain); teaching the specific guideposts of the emotional process traumatized people go through in their process of adaptation and recovery (Normalizing); creating a group-bonding process that will encourage candid self-disclosure (Coming Out); helping family members understand the subjective experience of their relative with a mental illness (Empathic Identification with the Victim); providing teachers who have borne this personal trauma and have "come through" (Modeling); showing the way to put living-with-trauma into a life perspective that fosters self-care and self-realization (Restoring One's Own Life-Line).
POWER AND ACTION (SOCIAL REALM)
Encouraging family members to recognize and express their anger at discrimination and stigma (Breaking the Silence); providing a premeditated, detailed "informational overload" regarding the neurobiological aspects of brain disorders to disconfirm learned stereotypes about mental illness (Consciousness Raising); modeling peer mastery of basic biomedical knowledge (Empowerment); introducing and practicing new coping and communication techniques (Assertiveness and Skill Training); releasing family members, through group support and mutual affirmation, from the gross misperception of their experience (Liberation); a fostering self-respect and pride in families as exemplars of courage, strength, and perseverance (Solidarity); showing families a way to join the fight against social injustice by linking them with family advocacy groups on the local and national level (Activism).