News: Walking the Walk

Local peer-to-peer program supports those diagnosed with brain disorders

May 7, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Events such as Saturday's "NAMI Walks" help educate and encourage people with brain disorders to seek help.

Meegan Brown was a senior at Turpin High School when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, finally explaining her years of erratic behavior and giving her a pathway to recovery.

Nine years later, Brown is providing the type of helping hand and personalized attention to others with brain disorders that she rarely received while learning to cope with her ailment. She's a tutor with the new Peer-to-Peer Program offered by the Hamilton County chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI).

The nine-week program matches a person who's learned to live with a neurologically based brain disorder — such as bipolar, severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or schizophrenia — with a class full of people who are recently diagnosed with one of the illnesses. Drawing upon the mentor's own experiences, the program uses lectures, interactive exercises and group therapy-like processes to aid participants in learning how to maintain their wellness.

"Being diagnosed with a brain disorder can be a scary thing," Brown says. "This is basically a wellness and recovery class. Recovery is kind of your journey through an illness that is not curable."

Brown likens the process to a cancer patient who's not yet in remission but is undergoing chemotherapy treatments, adding, "It's very healthy to know what recovery involves and how to go about it."

"People don't feel so alone if they come to a class of 10 or 20 people," says Patricia Brown, Meegan's mother.

"They can see how other people have coped and learn from their strategies."

As NAMI's education and outreach director, Patricia oversees the various programs aimed at assisting people suffering from the illnesses and their families. Peer-to-Peer is an especially important program because firsthand experience is often the best teacher, she says.

"I think it allows them to look at someone who's walking the walk and have a little more respect for them, in a way, than with a mental health professional," Patricia says. "They haven't had to undergo this journey like the mentors have."

About 10 million people in the United States have bipolar disorder, studies indicate. An estimated two-thirds of people with the illness aren't properly diagnosed or treated, and the mortality rate for people with untreated bipolar disorder is higher than for most types of heart disease and some types of cancer.

More than 60 percent of individuals who commit suicide struggle with a depressive illness or bipolar disorder, according to statistics.

Neurologically based brain disorders are chronic and usually life-long conditions. Most sufferers generally require some sort of treatment, according to NAMI officials. While medication often is necessary for successful treatment, other components include psychotherapy, support groups and education.

People who are recently diagnosed tend not to be as adept at recognizing the initially subtle symptoms that can indicate a full-blown relapse is about to occur. NAMI's Peer-to-Peer Program gives specific advice about what to look for and gives participants a checklist of potential warning signs.

The Hamilton County chapter's first Peer-to-Peer class was held last fall and had about 20 attendees, and a second nine-week session began in March for about a dozen people. Another class is scheduled for this fall, and NAMI is busy training more mentors.

Meanwhile, Meegan, 27, is a student at Northern Kentucky University working toward degrees in psychology and dance. She eventually wants to earn a master's degree in dance therapy to continue her efforts at helping people thrive despite mental or emotional problems.

The organization will hold its fifth annual "NAMI Walks for the Mind of America" Saturday at Sawyer Point along the downtown riverfront. The three-mile event involves walkers who have solicited pledges to raise money for NAMI's programs.

"There's such a stigma attached to most of these disorders, and that can prevent people from seeking help," Meegan says. "That stigma really comes from ignorance. We try to fight that and provide education through events like the walk. Education is key. That's the biggest reason I do this. We don't want people suffering unnecessarily."

For more information about the NATIONAL ALLIANCE FOR MENTAL ILLNESS and Sarturday's event, call 513-458-6670 or visit