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The NAMI Virginia Family Network: Support and Education Available for Families of Children with Mental Health Needs

10/31/2012 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Stephany Melton Hardison, MSW

As parents, don't we wish our children came with instruction handbooks? We love our kids, of course, but we all have our challenges. Now, imagine if your son or daughter begins to show signs of a mental health need or condition. They may start to struggle in school, have nightmares, act out, have severe anxieties, etc. At first, you may think they will grow out of it, that they are just being kids, or there must be something that you can do to fix the problem. However, after a while, you may begin to realize that whatever issues that are going on, they are not going to go away on their own or go away easily. In fact, they are probably getting worse, and you don't know what to do.

There's a great anecdote called, "Welcome to Holland", by Emily Perl Kingsley, that describes the journey that parents of children and youth with special needs go through. The story describes how a parent with a child with special needs ends up taking a different path then what they first thought life was going to be for their child. When you find out or realize that your child has mental health needs, all of your original hopes and dreams change. Instead of little Johnny being an honor roll student, you are not sure he is even going to complete the school year because he struggles so much to get through the school day.

Again, imagine if you were that parent. How would you react, how would you feel if you were in his/her shoes? I am sure you would want the best for your child and do everything in your power to help. Yet, there is no roadmap for parents to follow. There is no clear path that tells parents where to go when their child needs help, and often, parents are faced with roadblocks as they try to access services for their child. As a result, parents can feel isolated, hopeless, and helpless with nowhere to turn. Although many children and youth have mental health needs - one in five children have a diagnosable mental health need to be exact - parents can still feel like no one can possibly understand what they are going through. You try to talk to your friends and family about it, and many are very supportive and do everything that they can to help. Yet, there is still something missing.

While we all have the best of intentions and want to do whatever we can to help parents, there is one quality that only other parents with children and youth with mental health needs can bring to the table: lived experience and automatic understanding. When a parent talks to another parent, it is a freeing experience because that parent can say from the start that he/she has been there and that he/she doesn't have to explain. A parent can say to the other parent: "here is a great therapist that did a lot to help Johnny…maybe she can help Susie" or "here is a great training on how to access special education services…I found it really helpful" or simply "call me when you just need someone to talk to". All of these statements are powerful and can make a big difference in parents' lives.

So, where can parents go for this kind of support?

In June 2011, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia (NAMI Virginia) launched the Virginia Family Network (VFN). VFN is a grassroots network of families who provide support, education, and resources to other families with children and youth with mental health needs while ensuring that the voices of families and youth are represented throughout their communities and the system as a whole. Our vision is to create at least one parent support group in every region and to host an array of trainings for parents throughout the state and throughout the year. We have been rolling out region by region, including the Williamsburg and Hampton Roads area!

The great news is that we have a parent training coming up in your area! On Saturday, November 3rd from 10am to 3pm in Hampton, we are hosting "Driving the Care for your Family: A Training on How to Advocate for your Child with Mental Health Needs". It is designed to give parents some tools that will help them to better advocate for their child. Such tools include telling your story, navigating the system, and resolving conflict.

The other great news is that Colonial Behavioral Health will be hosting a parent conference in April and has made a commitment to developing a parent network in your area.

Want to be kept up to date on any efforts in your area? Want information on any available resources?

We have a wonderful monthly e-newsletter that includes information and updates on our efforts, as well as information on resources and trainings happening both locally and nationally.

Our strength comes from all of you, so please join us!

Here are some ways that you can get involved with the Virginia Family Network:

  • Start or join a parent support group
  • Start a youth support group
  • Spread the word to other parents and youth
  • Sign up for our e-newsletter
  • Become a parent or youth trainer
  • Serve as a point of contact and support to other parents in your community
  • Post a flyer in your local library, school, community service board, local CSA office, etc.
  • Host a VFN training at your local organization, school, community service board, etc.
  • And many, many more!

Stephany Melton Hardison is the Virginia Family Network Project Director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia (NAMI Virginia). Stephany has worked in the mental health field since 2003, providing education, support, and training to youth, families, and professionals including working for the state chapters of the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health and the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Massachusetts. She brings her extensive expertise in family networks to the VFN, having led a statewide family network in Massachusetts. In Virginia, Stephany serves on Virginia's System of Care Expansion Team and works closely with the Office of Child Mental Health. Her experience as a child of a parent with mental illness has motivated her to dedicate her career to supporting and advocating for families affected by mental health conditions. Stephany holds a Master's of Social Work degree with a concentration in Community Organizing, Policy , Planning, and Administration from Boston College.

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