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Sarnia program helps families cope with a mental illness

Tara Jeffrey Linda McLister wants every family in Sarnia-Lambton impacted by mental illness to know they’re not alone.
Mental Health
Cheryl Iacobelli, left, is a family support worker with the Lambton Family Initiative, and Linda McLister is a mother advocating for mental health awareness. Tara Jeffrey

Tara Jeffrey

Linda McLister wants every family in Sarnia-Lambton impacted by mental illness to know they’re not alone.

“Once you find out that so many people have a similar story to your own, you can see the relief - just being able to talk to someone about it,” said McLister, a local mother spreading the word about a support program for family members of those living with a serious mental illness.

The Family to Family program, offered through the Lambton Family Initiative, is designed to help caregivers understand and support individuals with mental illness, while maintaining their own well-being.

The free, 12-session course was a ‘godsend’ to her family, McLister said. She and her husband were referred there after years of struggling to cope with an adult son’s battle with clinical depression and bipolar disorder.

“It’s no exaggeration that this course has been life-changing,” said McLister, who was able to better understand the complexity of her son’s illness, while letting go of her own guilt. “It helps you to see that, ‘it’s not your fault.’”

The course, taught by trained, volunteer family members, explores depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and others. Families learn about medications, side effects, brain biology, research, empathy, communication skills, rehabilitation services and advocacy.

One of the most important aspects of the course is the message about ‘self-care,’ said Cheryl Iacobelli, an instructor and support worker with the Lambton Family Initiative.

“You’re doing this 24-hours a day, seven days a week,” she said. “And if you’re not able to take care of yourself, then you won’t be able to help them.”

The program was designed by the U.S.-based National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and has been running in Sarnia for more than a decade, thanks to local retiree Bill Hopkins, a longtime advocate for mental health awareness and board chair for the Consumer's Survivor Association of Lambton (CSAL).

Sarnia is one of the only Canadian cities offering the course.

“We don’t have a lot of money, so word of mouth is key,” said Iacobelli. “And people like Linda, who are willing to share their stories.”

McLister said her family still suffers from the effects of her son’s illness, but they’ve grown and learned a great deal.

She and her husband are currently training to be instructors for a similar program for service providers dealing with those with mental illness.

“We’re really helping families to be advocates for their loved ones, when they can’t do it themselves,” said Iacobelli. “Education is empowerment.”

The next 12-week Family to Family education course begins October 2. For more, contact Cheryl at 519-337-8110.

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