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A light of hope: National Alliance on Mental Health

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National Alliance on Mental Health's(NAMI) parent-to-parent instructors have experience helping loved ones with mental illnesses, and they can provide insight to other families facing similar issues.

Santa Barbara County NAMI President George Kaufmann is one of the instructors for the parent-to-parent program at the national nonprofit's new Santa Maria location, which opened in 2020 and serves northern Santa Barbara County and parts of SLO County. His son was diagnosed with schizophrenia more than 25 years ago and struggled with treatment.

"Family members often come to us often befuddled and frustrated because everywhere they've turned has not worked. Our mental health system works for those who accept treatment, but not so much for those without insight," Kaufmann said. "It took my son 10 years of going in and out of jails, in and out of hospitals, and resisting treatment every step of the way to develop insight."

The parent-to-parent program educates families about the science behind mental illness, communication techniques with their relatives, and peer-to-peer support, Kaufmann said.

"This is a great program for families; they'll probably be uncomfortable asking for help but they'll never regret it," Haufmann said.

NAMI is the largest mental health services organization in the United States, and the Santa Maria location is one of its 600 affiliates that educates and advocates for mental health, Haufmann said.

The current parent-to-parent program in northern Santa Barbara County runs through Nov. 10. Although enrollment is closed for it, participants can either sign up for the SLO County affiliate's program, which started on Sept. 29, or pre-register for Santa Maria's January session.

NAMI didn't have a physical northern Santa Barbara County location until a year and a half ago, and Kaufmann said the difficulty now is outreach.

"We worked very closely with our Board of Supervisors to try and improve services, identify gaps, and improve them. We have been pretty successful over the years, but we are continuing to struggle in North County about awareness of the family class and NAMI in general," Kaufmann said.

The current parent-to-parent program includes three to four people from the Santa Maria area and others from SLO County and south of Santa Maria. NAMI hopes to provide information to those who are interested and to get more participants through word of mouth, he said. Kaufmann hopes this program gives families an understanding that treatment works and recovery is possible.

"Parents think their job is to make things easier and solve problems and then realize these are problems they can't solve. You can't do something for someone else when they need to solve it for themselves," he continued.

The program hands out mental health crisis information that includes details about county mental health resources and hospitalization procedures, Kaufmann said.

"We spend a lot of time helping families with what to do if anything goes south, which unfortunately happens," he continued.

Through all of this, the program teaches parents the value of self-care and the development of healthy coping mechanisms, Kaufmann said.

"We hope to change the way they respond to their situation ... . We ask that family members take care of themselves—the whole idea of putting on your own mask before you can help other people. Don't try to do this without focusing on self-care," Kaufmann said.

To join the January waiting list, Kaufmann said to contact family support specialist Maria Perez at mperez@t-mha.org. To register for the SLO County program, families can call SLO County affiliate President Pam Zweifl at (805) 543-1825 or email namisanluisobispo@gmail.com.

Fast fact

• Parts of Nipomo and Los Osos are getting new streetlights and associated improvements starting on Sept. 29, according to the SLO County Department of Public Works. The project prioritizes areas along Los Osos Valley Road in Los Osos and Pomeroy Road and Thompson Avenue in Nipomo to increase safety to the traveling public, pedestrians, and bicyclists. Underground Specialties Central Coast of Templeton was awarded the $295,000 contract for the project, which is funded by the Federal Highway Administrator's Highway Safety Improvement Program and the county road fund. Δ

Staff Writer Taylor O'Connor from New Times' sister paper wrote this week's Strokes. Send business and nonprofit tips to strokes@newtimesslo.com.

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