The National Alliance on Mental Health's Family-to-Family course starts Feb. 1, offering a free eight-week online course to those caring for a loved one with a mental illness. (Planet file photo)

A shroud of stigma has shadowed the subject of mental illness for eons, but there’s no reason it has to stay that way. In fact, one in five Coloradans will suffer from a mental health or substance abuse problem this year, according to Tri-County Health Network. That’s something worth talking about.

While it’s common to consider the need for mental health support for those going through mental health challenges, it’s perhaps less common to think about the need for supporting the family and loved ones who care for those with an illness. Tri-County Health Network, in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), is offering NAMI’s Family-to-Family course beginning Feb. 1, a free eight-week session program that will meet Monday evenings on Zoom.

“You see personal growth in real time,” said Ben Marshall, a former instructor of the course. “People may enter the course with preconceived notions about mental health and many times are coming from a place of anger and despair. The course fosters a safe space to vent frustrations, learn positive techniques to have a conversation about mental health with their loved one and learn from the others in the group in addition to the instructors.”

Given the difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, the course will be conducted entirely online, with participants able to remain in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Resources are available through Tri-County for those who lack a computer or internet connection but wish to participate.

According to a recent Tri-County news release, at least 8.4 million Americans provide care to an adult suffering from a mental health condition, almost 75 percent of whom report that caring for their loved one causes high levels of emotional stress. Sharing experiences with a group of trusted individuals who are going through relatable experiences is an important part of the course, said Paul Reich, behavioral health program manager at Tri-County and instructor for the upcoming course.

“The opportunity to connect with other community members who are going through what you are going through cannot be understated,” he said. “I am always so impressed by the strength and wisdom that family members possess in the face of a scary diagnosis for their loved one. There is a lot of knowledge that everyone picks up along the way of supporting a loved one and having the opportunity to share that information is really helpful.”

The course is taught by instructors who often have had their own experience either with mental health challenges or supporting loved ones with them. Those interested may attend the first class and decide whether it feels like a good fit, and participation in all activities throughout the course is optional, with course members encouraged to participate at the level that feels comfortable for them.

Past participants have reported feeling greater empathy for their loved ones suffering from a mental illness, better understanding what their loved one is going through and the relief of “knowing we’re not alone.”

“Living in a combination rural and resort community, we can easily become isolated. Mental health resources are scarce and in many cases far away, and stresses such as seasonal unemployment and high cost of living can become burdensome if not overwhelming,” said Marshall, noting that the suicide rate in Colorado is higher than the national average, a stark reality that has affected local community members deeply.

“I've had a personal journey with mental health, as well as one within my family,” he said. “I was always afraid to talk about it as I had a hard time articulating how I felt, especially when no visible, physical ailment was present. We need to be able to talk openly and honestly about how we feel, what we are experiencing, and what we need without the fear of being judged by others and personal or professional reprisal.”