Steamboat women launch class for people with family members with mental illness
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Last February, two Steamboat Springs mothers bonded over their shared grief, pain and daily struggles in having sons battling a mental illness.
Their adult sons have different challenges and diagnoses, but both mothers know what it is like to not know where their sons are at times or how they are putting a roof over their heads. They both know what it is like to get calls from hospitals or law enforcement. They both know the struggle to find the balance between helping and enabling. And they both have been pushed away when all they wanted to do was help.
Kathy Coates and Tricia McEntee found much needed support in each other but wanted to see more support in the community for family members of people with a mental illness. When they moved to the area, the only groups they could find were hours away.
Both had attended groups sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, while living in other states and decided they take the necessary steps to bring a program to the Yampa Valley.
When they held a meeting on Feb. 26 in Steamboat to gauge interest, they discovered a definite need across the region.
Then the pandemic hit, and their initial trainings were canceled. Then everything went virtual.
That didn’t stop them, and now, the two women have completed their training and are ready to enroll participants in the first Family-to-Family class. They volunteer their time, while NAMI provides resources.
The eight-session class is offered at no charge and will be held through Zoom video every Wednesday beginning Sept. 9 and running through Oct. 28.
Coates and McEntee already have some people signed up but have space for more. A response is requested by Friday, and it is preferred participants attend every session.
Coates also is undergoing additional training to start a support group. The Family-to-Family class is less a support group and more an educational class, Coates said.
The plan is to start the support group in October, she said.
The shift to virtual has its plusses and minuses, Coates noted. For some people, being virtual has turned out to be an easier and more comfortable setting.
But there isn’t any replacement for the connections that can only be made in person — chatting during a coffee break and being able to experience each other’s emotion and humanity up close.
Still, the information the classes provide holds the same value, she said, and they are now able to include participants from anywhere. Coates said they have a few people from Boulder enrolled, because the class there is full.
One challenge is privacy and for people to have a place where no one else can listen in. Coates said one woman who did the training with her spent the entire training in the bathroom.
The Family-to-Family class will include presentations, discussions and interactive discussions. More information about what the classes cover can be found on the Family-to-Family NAMI website.
The classes don’t provide answers to every issue a family member might be having, Coates said, but they can provide answers to some things — like who to call in a crisis and who not to bother calling.
A primary reason to take the class is to help establish a plan and a strategy, Coates said, for when a crisis hits or how to deal with things like a family member who is having delusions, as well as to learn more about treatment options.
The tools are designed to help people for the long haul, Coates said, as there are no easy answers or solutions when it comes to mental illness.
Part of it is self-care, she noted — so people can stay afloat, continue to be a positive influence and have a plan and the resources in place to be there for their mothers, brothers, children or other loved ones.
And Coates anticipates needs will only grow, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For people with a mental illness who were holding on and functioning relatively well in a routine with a place to live and a job, the economic havoc wrought by the pandemic has thrown many of those lives into chaos.
And for people who weren’t doing well before the pandemic, the challenges may have been exacerbated significantly.
“The winter is going to be really hard,” she said, especially for those without reliable housing.
Coates’ own son, who lives in Nebraska, lost his job because of the pandemic. And just last weekend, he was evicted from his apartment. He was making too much noise, she said, and there had been some damage to the apartment in the past.
“We take it one day at a time,” she said.
Her son is a talented chef and has a new job that he’s doing well at. He has a temporary place to stay, but she isn’t sure what anything longer term looks like.
“He’s a really pleasant guy,” she said. But he’s “sick of doctors and sick of counselors.”
In February, McEntee hired a private investigator to find her son. She has now located him in Hawaii, where he has a long-term spot in a good shelter. She’d like to see him, but from past experiences, she knows that might scare him away.
It is because of these ongoing experiences that Coates and McEntee know what it is like to live day in and day out, year after year, with a family member they love deeply but are often powerless to help. They know how their sons have suffered because of their mental illness, and they know how that pain has spread to friends and families.
“We have to learn as much as we can, so we can share the knowledge with each other,” Coates said.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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Pulmonologist Dr. Brent Peters, medical director of the Sleep Lab at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, considers his work in sleep medicine fun because of the positive changes he can see in patients.