Gary Tucker, 55, of Port Republic knows what it's like to live with a loved one's serious mental illness. His late father had bipolar disorder, which results in severe swings from depression to mania and back again.
He is one of the volunteer leaders of the National Alliance on Mental Illness's Atlantic-Cape Chapter, a support and advocacy group for people dealing with mental illness in friends and family members. It meets monthly in Absecon United Methodist Church in Absecon.
He says the diagnosis is particularly difficult for parents to accept about their children.
"They have plans for their children to be happy and live lives better than their own. Then this comes along," said the retired union millwright.
Tucker lost a daughter to Hodgkins lymphoma about a decade ago, so he knows how devastating it is to deal with a child's serious illness, and to live through loss. "With mental illness it's the same thing," Tucker said. "They can be severely ill. It's tough, but you are not alone."
NAMI gives people support and tools to help their loved ones get legal, medical, housing and financial help. That's especially important for those whose illnesses prevent them from holding full-time jobs, he said.
Mental illnesses are common, giving NAMI a large pool of people to serve. In a given year in the U.S. approximately one quarter of adults are diagnosable for one or more disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Most of the cases are minor to moderate in severity.
But the most difficult experience falls on the six percent of Americans who grapple with a serious mental illness, the NIMH says. That would include the 1.1 percent of the population that is schizophrenic, characterized by erratic behavior and a break with reality; and another 3.9 percent diagnosed bipolar at some point in their lifetimes, according to the NIMH.
Tucker, who has helped teach the group's twice-annual Family to Family classes for about 11 years, estimates about 15 families currently come to the group's monthly meetings from Atlantic and Cape May counties.
JoAnn Elko, of Absecon, the parent of an adult child with bipolar disorder, has been a NAMI volunteer for 15 years. She is also one of NAMI's community representatives to the board of AtlantiCare Behavioral Health. She said she often speaks to people who call NAMI about a crisis with a loved one who lives here, while the caller sometimes lives out of the area.
"Children call about their parents, and parents call about their children," she said. So she and other NAMI volunteers have become expert in referring callers to the best place for help.
Stigma still causes many people to hide their family member's illness, but NAMI helps family members realize others are handling similar problems, and many diseases have become treatable - though not curable - with new medications, said Gail Dembin of Egg Harbor Township, a retired teacher in her hometown's schools.
"Most psychiatrists now agree it's a biologically based disorder. More well known people are willing to stand up and say they have mental illness," she said, citing Howie Mandel talking about his obsessive compulsive disorder and Brooke Shields' book on her postpartum depression. "Churchill had severe depression and called it his 'black dog' that used to follow him around."
"The new medications are wonderful. They help a fair amount of people live a productive life," Elko said, "but they need constant therapy."
Dembin's daughter is now 40, living independently in public housing and working part-time, thanks to new drugs and her daughter's cooperation in taking them. Her daughter was diagnosed with depression at age 12 and bipolar disorder at 17, she said.
"I decided when she was diagnosed I had to find out more about it," said the retired teacher, who has been helping teach NAMI's 12-week Family-to-Family program about twice a year since 1995. "I went to NAMI and got active."
Debra Silver of Absecon is president of the Cape Atlantic NAMI chapter. She is another retired teacher who is now a family counselor. She grew up in Haddon Township with a mom with bipolar disorder.
Silver was a special education teacher for 34 years in Galloway Township, retiring in 2010. She says her experience with her mom's mental illness - she prefers to call it mental health experiences - had its up side.
"I learned a tremendous amount of tolerance towards all sorts of behavior," she said. "And humor." Both came in handy in the classroom, she said.
When her mom was on the manic side of the bipolar spectrum, "she was so much fun. She could be a wonderful loving mother. We had tea parties. She was a dramatic, lovely person," Silver said.
"But then she was a person with this other side. There was nothing you could do (when the depression hit). There were years of stability, but you never knew when the other shoe would drop."
Tucker, who grew up in Barnegat, also said his dad sometimes functioned highly.
"He was a father of four, a union carpenter, Korean war veteran and psychiatric patient," he said. "At times he was fine, at times very ill."
And it's difficult for family members to get loved ones into treatment involuntarily. "The way the law is written, they have to be a danger to themselves or others. That can be difficult to prove, until they make threats or behave in ways that are threatening. You can get commitment at that point," Tucker said.
During times of illness, Silver said she had to function as caregiver, even when she was the child.
"I remember my mother sitting on the steps (at home) - she had cut off all of her hair, and I was holding her. I was five years old, and comforting my mother.
"Children need help understanding (mentally ill) adults in their lives. They are going to be the caregivers to them their whole lives," she said, adding that her mom took her own life at age 60.
Silver is also dealing with the mental illness of a younger family member, she said. "My family is sandwiched with mental illness. When I realized another generation was affected, I started attending meetings and supporting this person's parent."
Last year she got her master's degree in mental health counseling. She's also vice chair of the Atlantic County Mental Health Advisory Board.
NAMI can be life-changing for people, Silver said.
"There are times mothers and fathers come who have never said 'My child is mentally ill.' It's so hard for them to say it. They change radically through support." They finally feel safe, in a place where others understand what they are going through, she said.
"Mental illness carries such a stigma in our country. People become so isolated with those fears. To accept (their child is mentally ill) is huge. They are scared, thinking 'What did I do wrong?'
"So much of this is biologically based. It's a disease just like any other, so let's treat it," Silver said.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:
•The Atlantic and Cape May Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness hosts a support group that meets 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Absecon United Methodist Church.
•NAMI also offers a free, 12-week Family-to-Family Education Course for those who have a loved one with a serious mental illness. The course covers information about schizophrenia, mood disorders, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also covers coping skills, provides basic information about medications and explains communication skills and problem solving techniques. To be added to the list for the next class, call Gail Dembin at (609) 927-0215.
•For more information on NAMI NJ and legislative bills the group is following, visit: www.naminj.org