BENNINGTON — The mental health advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness has begun holding support groups for family and friends of those with psychiatric conditions every second Wednesday of the month in Bennington.
Family support groups help participants to “better understand and support their loved ones living with a mental health condition while maintaining their own well-being,” a statement from the group says.
Group facilitator Ann Cummings, who led the first of these meetings Sept. 8, said the groups allow family and friends of those with mental illness to talk about their situations, and support and offer advice to each other.
“Often we’re dealing with unusual behavior, and that’s not easy to deal with,” she said.
Cummings said she also tells participants about other NAMI events, such as the online family-to-family classes that are going to start Oct. 7. She encouraged those who attended family support groups to also take the class.
“We educate people about mental illness so that they know what to expect,” she said.
NAMI offers more support groups for families of those with a mental health condition than for those with mental health conditions, known as peer support groups.
According to the NAMI VT website, there are eight family support groups operating out of Vermont right now, from Bennington to St. Johnsbury. There are only three peer support groups, two of which operate out of the Burlington area. A fourth listing leads to a 7 Cups forum, an online counseling website that NAMI is partnered with.
Cummings said this is because facilitators are trained individuals, and it can be hard for those with a mental health condition to go through training and maintain the group.
Those with conditions are also not encouraged to come to family support groups.
“Sometimes it’s a little awkward for the person with the diagnosis to be in the same room, so we ask them to stay home,” she said.
Despite these shortcomings, Cummings said NAMI’s family support groups helped her relationship with her boyfriend after he had a manic episode.
“Once I learned about mental illness and I saw how hard he was working on it, I really had a lot of respect for what he was going through and how far he had come,” she said. “And we grew closer because of that.”
She has since been a NAMI group facilitator for 17 years and has been married to her now-husband for 15.
Cummings said she wants parents to leave the groups with hope.
“I hope that they feel less guilt,” she said.
“I hope that they have renewed hope that they can have a good relationship with their loved one,” she said, “and have better communication with their loved one.”
NAMI VT’s family support groups take place every second Wednesday of the month, at 6:30 p.m. These take place at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bennington, although they might move online in the future, according to the NAMI VT website. Participants are required to wear masks.
Meetings are free of charge. Help with funding comes from a Vermont Department of Mental Health grant.