By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
While it can be difficult for anyone who has a parent or sibling with a mental illness, it’s especially stressful for children.
“A lot of times what happens if the parent has another child that has a mental health condition or one that’s their own, they’re focused on that illness or that ill child,” said Michelle Huff, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Hancock County.
“Sometimes the well child gets a lot more responsibilities they wouldn’t traditionally have in that kind of role or they have other stressors. They need another outlet or time to be a child and kind of cope with that and understand they’re not alone,” she said.
To help those children, the local agency will start a new monthly program called KidShop. Free sessions will provide school-age children with family ties to mental illness with an opportunity to join in activities, share concerns and get support. The first session will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 6 at Focus on Friends, 509 W. Trenton Ave. Lunch is included.
Huff said KidShop is open to children in first through 12th grade. Two separate programs will be available; one for children who don’t have a mental health diagnosis themselves but have a sibling or parent who does; and children who have a mental health diagnosis.
The reason, she said, is the organization doesn’t want to perpetuate the stigma of mental health.
“We don’t want to tell the kids who have a diagnosis and are in treatment, even though they have a lot of services for those kiddos, we still don’t want to say, ‘no, you don’t qualify.’ We don’t think that’s appropriate because we are trying to reduce that stigma,” Huff said. “Both groups are facing different situations so we want to connect them with their peers in a peer-based situation where they can talk and reflect off of each other and understand they’re not alone.”
The program is not meant to replace any traditional mental health group counseling or treatment, she noted.
“Our goal is to connect peers and bring across that common understanding of mental health in our family systems and find support within our peer groups,” she said.
Until KidShop, there was no system or program that provided these services, she said.
The KidShop program was originally created by NAMI Minnesota and brought to Ohio by NAMI of Montgomery County, said Huff, who received training in November 2014.
“My last year had been trying to plan and organize and decide if this is something we could use and benefit from in our community,” she said.
Huff said she did some surveys and received a good response to the idea. She then applied for a grant from the Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation. The agency was awarded $15,000 to pilot the program over the next three years.
“A lot of NAMIs in Ohio are trying to start it,” she said. “Luckily we have a very responsive and supportive community with the Community Foundation being one of our greatest entities to help us pilot and get programs up and off the ground.”
Huff said NAMI Ohio has opened up funding to some of the counties that haven’t been able to get private funding for the program. The state agency is also providing some supplies, including art materials, to help local NAMI groups get started with KidShop.
Huff hopes to have 10 children in each group. She said each session will begin with a warm-up time and general discussion.
“Maybe we’ll have two or three kids at a table together and doing a puzzle for that first initial bonding time,” said Huff. “Then we’ll move into an activity. It could be something with paints or any kind of arts or crafts.”
The activity will lead to discussion points, and the discussion will be monitored by facilitators, said Huff.
Children who have a mental health diagnosis will follow a similar agenda, she added.
“They’re going to be doing activities through play or arts, crafts, those kinds of things. And that activity is going to be based on some kind of topic,” she said.
For instance, one of the topics might be wearing different masks.
“We put on different personalities, faces when we’re out in public versus when we’re home and relaxed. So we’re going to talk about those things and why we do that and when it’s OK to have them on, when we should take them off, basic coping skills,” she said. “They can talk to peers about how they handle those kinds of situations.”
Organizers in Montgomery County found that the older participants often built relationships and provided support for younger ones in the program.
“They said that was a really neat process to watch. We hope to see some of that, too,” said Huff. “It’s a large age range we’re dealing with and (they have) needs at different periods in their lives. We’ll see if that happens in our community or if we need to do something a little more broken up as far groups go.”
There will be at least five adult supervisors at each session who have had background checks. Huff said parents may stay for awhile if their child needs time to warm up to the group.
“But we just ask that they don’t stay the whole time so their kids can work on what they need to, at least the first time they come. And some parents need a little more time to make sure their children are OK, and we respect that,” she said.
Huff said the program will also provide respite time for parents.
“During this beginning phase, we’ll talk to the parents to see if they would like a support group that’s going on maybe for the first hour, hour and a half of the program,” said Huff. “It will depend on the parents, but that’s one of our goals we’re setting our sights on.”
Registration is required prior to the first meeting. Volunteers are also welcome to help with the program.
“All of our programs are run by volunteers. We have a few interested now (in KidShop), but we’re always taking more volunteers,” said Huff.
She said anyone is welcome to fill out an application and talk to her or Jaime Lehtomaa, volunteer and program coordinator.
Volunteers will work with someone who is trained in facilitating the program. The only requirement, said Huff, is that everyone has to pass a background check prior to volunteering with the children’s group.
Huff said she’s excited about the program and it definitely fits with NAMI’s mission.
“NAMI began as a family support program primarily because there was never any support for the family members who were impacted by mental health. That’s really the foundation of NAMI,” she said. “Then we grew into the peer support and education and those kinds of things, but still recognizing there’s a lot of programs for people that have a mental health condition but nothing for the family. So this is kind of our way to bridge that gap. And it truly does build better relationships with our family members and more understanding and peace within them.”
Online registration can be found under the education tab on the NAMI of Hancock County website. Information is also available by calling 419-425-5988 or stopping by the office located in suite 127 at the Family Center, 1800 N. Blanchard St.
Send an E-mail to Jeannie Wolf