By Leila Beem Núñez, Editor
When her only child, Michele, was 18, she suffered a mental breakdown. She was taken to a psych unit in a hospital, in to a room guarded by a police officer. To this day, police officers frighten her. Michele was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. Brenda Herschberger, was at a loss as to what to do to help her daughter.
“When you have a loved one with a mental illness, you feel alone and isolated because people don’t understand,” Herschberger said.
After moving about 10 years ago to Coffee County from her home state of Illinois, Herschberger began Googling mental health and organizations that could offer support and help. She stumbled upon the National Alliance on Mental Health, a national, all-volunteer organization whose mission it was to help improve the quality of life for those living with mental illnesses, and the loved ones who often find themselves taking care of them. Herschberger joined the organization online and began to receive information in the mail. One day, she received a phone call from an organization representative.
“They said, ‘We saw that you joined NAMI. Did you know that there’s a support group locally?’,” Herschberger recalled.
Herschberger immediately went to one. At NAMI Coffee County, which also serves Franklin, Lincoln and Moore Counties, she found support groups for loved ones dealing with caring for someone with mental illnesses. Some dealing with mental illnesses themselves also formed part of the groups. NAMI also offered courses for people, teaching everything from what the different kinds of mental illnesses are to the treatments available for them. For Herschberger, it was overwhelming.
“For the first five support groups I went to, I just sat there and bawled the whole time I was there because it was such a relief to know there were other people like me going through this,” Herschberger said. “I was so excited to find help that I wanted to help other people.”
She quickly set about taking online courses, and later, an in-person training course in Nashville, to learn how to facilitate NAMI support groups.
“I always asked God, ‘Why would you make my only child have this? What did I do?’ And over the years I’m learning that there was a reason for it,” Herschberger said. “It’s so that I can help other people. And I’ve touched so many lives, and they’ve touched mine back. It’s such a blessing.”
Over a decade later, she still leads support groups at the local branch. She said that she aims to spread awareness about the group because many who may desperately need it don’t even realize it exists. She recalled a woman who recently told her that her daughter tried to commit suicide multiple times, and she was relieved to find a group that might be able to help.
“There’s just so much need out there, so I got involved to help people,” Herschberger said. “There are many forms of mental illness, and it touches everybody.”
At NAMI Coffee County, monthly support groups are offered on the first Thursday of every month at the First Presbyterian Church, at 1101 Jackson St. in Tullahoma.
The group sessions are peer-led, and offer members a chance to hear personal challenges and success stories directly from those experiencing mental illness every day and those close to them. Herschberger said the sessions allow members to see people not for their illnesses but for who they are and to share stories in a confidential setting, among other things. Sometimes, she said, all people need to do is find a space to talk to others about their struggles.
“People often alienate themselves from a loved one with mental illness because they don’t understand it and they don’t want to understand,” Herschberger said. “This helps people understand.”
The support groups will occasionally have guest speakers, usually individuals who have coped with mental illness themselves. Herschberger said the support groups can be a sort of family away from home.
“It’s all people affected by mental illness in one way or another, either we have it or we have someone in our life that has it,” Herschberger said. “That’s why everyone that’s involved is so passionate about it, because we’ve been there.”
The local branch also offers an eight-week set of courses, “With Hope in Mind,” specifically for family members of those with mental illnesses. The classes are meant to help family understand mental disorders so that they can help their loved ones better. NAMI Coffee County will begin a new set of courses on Jan 8.
“Education is the key to understanding how to help someone with mental illness,” Herschberger said. “You have to educate yourself.”
Ron Kohl, president of NAMI Coffee County, said that the brain is a complex organ that can be difficult to understand, and the classes aim to bridge that gap. He added that mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of demographic.
“The big thing in our area is the stigma. The brain is an organ, just like your pancreas, except more complex,” Kohl said. “There can be something wrong that can be treated medically.”
At the classes, students learn about a range of topics, from the different kinds of mood disorders to exist to the kinds of mediations available to treat them. The last three classes of the training focus exclusively on self-care.
“When you’re caring for someone with a mental illness, you forget, ‘I have to take care of me,’ and it can feel like it’s sucking the life out of you,” Herschberger said.
One day at a time
Today, Herschberger’s daughter, Michele, is 35. She still copes with physical issues that Hershberger said people with mental illnesses often deal with, like fibromyalgia, but she is doing better.
“Every day she deals with something, but she’s doing better,” Herschberger said. “When you have someone in your life with a mental illness, you take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and you appreciate the good days.”
For Herschberger, NAMI provided a space for her to understand her daughter’s problems and consequent behaviors.
“For years I locked my daughter out of the house. She didn’t want to go to work; I thought she was just lazy. And now looking back on it I think, ‘What a terrible person I was.’ I just didn’t know,” she said.
She said she hopes NAMI Coffee County can continue to do the same for others in the area.
“There is help out there. There is hope. And that’s what we try to offer through NAMI, because when you have someone in the mental unit, you just feel hopeless and helpless,” Herschberger said. “But there is hope, and you don’t have to go through this alone. It’s not a fun thing to go through, but if you love someone, then you love them for who they are.”
For more information on support groups, educational courses and general inquiries about NAMI Coffee County, call (931) 952-6871. For general information about the national organization, visit nami.org.