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Don’t struggle alone against mental illness

Over my career as a health reporter I have had the opportunity to interview many famous people who braved the stigma of mental illness to talk openly about their own battles. Those interviews have included Mike Wallace, Art Buchwald, Patty Duke and Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and one of the country’s most respected experts on bipolar disorder.

In her book, “Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” Jamison uses her own experiences and those of many well-known artists, composers and writers to explore the link between creativity and bipolar disease.

From Wallace to Jamison, I heard the same message: Going public with their battles with mental illness was not only a life-affirming, self-affirming experience, it also put them in touch with other sufferers and their families who had been battling alone.

Duke, who suffers from manic depression, told me she gets thousands of letters from people who found courage through her example. They also found through Duke’s books insight on how to handle their own lives.

“Being an advocate strengthens you,” Duke told me. “One of the things people with mental illness sense is that we are truly alone in the world, but the more we talk about it the more we realize that’s not true.”

Duke also learned she could help others and they in turn could help her.

Manatee families struggling with mental illness now have an opportunity to tell their own stories, and by sharing, help create a network of support for themselves and others.

The Manatee County Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is offering a free, 12-week course for family members of individuals with brain disorders such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic/anxiety disorder. The classes are taught by trained NAMI family members who will cover how to cope successfully with this major challenge and thereby help loved ones work toward recovery.

The course will be held 6:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays, March 3-May 19, at Volunteers of America Lifelong Learning Center, 2012 43rd Ave. W., Bradenton. To register, call Linda Davis at 778-2095, but call now because the class is limited to 20 people.

Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at 745-7049.