NAMI Family to Family Classes are a Source of Strength and Hope for Many Caregivers


Until recently, there simply has not been enough help for the myriad of families dealing with these difficult issues. Family member and National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) member, Dr. Joyce Burland of Vermont has designed a free educational 12-week program for these families. The Family to Family class is now taught in approximately 42 states. In Los Angeles, the classes begin on Wednesday, January 30, and to register, please visit Please see below for various locations. 

The education course is for family members dealing with a chronically mentally ill relative. It teaches etiology, prognosis, treatment for the ill relative and coping skills for family members. All family members whose relatives have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, depression, depression with psychotic features, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, dual diagnosis, and borderline personality disorder would benefit from taking this course. The course is the equivalent of a graduate course in these illnesses, with excellent current book lists and up-to-date research references. 

The prognosis for the children and relatives who have these illnesses greatly improves for family members who have taken this course. The course discusses all the possible etiologies for developing these illnesses from stress-diathesis models, to genetic models, to fetal illness model. It also explains all the current research into the brain-biology of each illness and the medications and therapeutic interventions, which best treat these illnesses. 

Because of the myriad of difficulties these illnesses can present for a family, the curriculum with the class hand-outs is extremely helpful for family members. There is such a sense of relief in parent’s eyes when they have an understanding of the multi-factorial causes of these illnesses. They learn specific new tools that they can practice in communicating with their ill relatives. They develop deepening levels of empathy for their relatives as a result of experiential training offered in the class. Parents learn how to talk to the psychiatrists treating their ill children. They also master an understanding of brain biology and the medications for these conditions. In addition, they are also made aware of community resources available to help someone with a mental illness. 

The reason the course is so powerful is that it is very detailed and consistent. The course is taught by family members who have ill relatives. It increases their knowledge level and their self-esteem. Students in the course learn the best ways to handle someone in the throes of a brain disorder. The course curriculum includes: Depression and Schizophrenia, Schizo-affective Disorder, Bipolar Disorder 1 and II, Depression and depression with psychotic feature, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder. 

The course is primarily for family members and not for the person with the above illnesses, and also covers brain biology of all these different brain illnesses; medications, their side-effects and the latest research on meds; empathy training and communication skills for family members; care for the caregivers and community resources; and recovery for the family member with the illness.

The most potent tool for the mental wellness of the family is the “no blame approach” of the NAMI Family to Family class curriculum.” This frees the family to become more empathic caregivers.

Other benefits to those families taking the class: Newest medications, their side-effects and the latest research on these meds; empathy training and communication skills for family members; care for the caregivers and community resources; treatment and recovery models for the ill relative. Other family interventions such as: Limit setting, making space for the ill person’s unusual behavior; crisis planning – How to handle potential violence and instructions on coping with a suicidal relative. If analysis and other forms of psycho-therapy can help people with personality disorders, than “we can also help people with brain disorders”.

Giving families an education into medication, etiology, prognosis, etc. really benefits the ill relative. This results in less negative family pressure for the ill person. The families feel freer to come out of denial about their relative’s illness and take responsibility for finding treatment for them. 

This course teaches family members how to maintain empathy and compassion for their ill relative in spite of the adverse conditions it causes. When the family is educated the prognosis definitely improves. When families take this class, your patients have a greater opportunity to get well.

NAMI also offers Peer to Peer Support Groups which are led by consumers. These are ongoing support groups in most cities with consumers trained by NAMI facilitators. Consumers helping consumers seems to work the best. In these groups, people with diagnosis become motivated to stay on their meds, participate in a work program, and get to important meetings to manage their illness.

Also NAMI offers “In Your Own Voice” training for consumers. This training educates people with brain illnesses to go out and talk to community groups such as Chamber of Commerce’s, corporations, clinics, etc. This is one of the best ways to fight stigma and raise public awareness that people with brain disorders deserve equal treatment to anyone with any other kind of illness.

NAMI also offers a 10-week provider course for clinicians in hospitals. Much of the scientific information clinicians may already know. The provider course provides an education in empathy training, communication skills, crisis management, suicide prevention from the perspective of mentally ill patients. The course is very illuminating. NAMI will be bringing this to hospitals and clinics this next year. CEU credits will be provided.

The California Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Sacramento can refer family members to a NAMI Family to Family class in their area:  Please call (916) 567-0163. 

To refer family members to a class in Los Angeles: 

  • West L.A.: Sharon S. Dunas MFT, (310) 820-4626 
  • San Fernando Valley: Jim Randall, (818) 892-1373 
  • Inglewood: Nancy Carter, (310) 203-7851 

Or, call John Griffin with the Dept. of Mental Health (213) 637-2311) who has the list of classes for the whole Los Angeles county. There are at least six or eight classes going in the LA County at any one time. Reservations required.

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