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Sandy class helps families share pain of mental illness

NAMI offers free family-to-family class in Sandy

Families dealing with the effects of mental illness that get involved with a Clackamas County organization are finding a new truth: They are not alone.

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, has chapters throughout Oregon and the United States. NAMI of Clackamas County provides information, support, education and advocacy for families and individuals in Clackamas County dealing with mental illness.

Pennie McGee lives on the eastern side of Boring with her husband.

Since her son graduated from high school, McGee has been struggling with the responsibility of caring for a loved one with a mental illness.

McGee's son, Jason, became more distant after graduation and eventually made a suicide attempt, which she said threw her for a loop.

McGee said her son, now 40, reminds her of how Robin Williams seemed to deal with mental illness. “On the outside, you think everything’s dandy,” she said.

According to Michele Veenker, executive director for NAMI Clackamas County, one in four people is diagnosed with a mental illness and one in 17 people, 22,000 people in Clackamas County, have a severe and persistent mental illness, one that impacts their jobs and relationships.

Veenker also reported that suicide is the third leading cause of death in people age 17 to 24 and suicide causes more deaths than car accidents, HIV/AIDS and homicides in Oregon.

Surprisely, Veenker said, the highest incident of suicide occurs in men age 65 and older.

In 2012, after he moved to Colorado with his wife and four kids, McGee's son spent the year with more suicide attempts than ever, McGee said.

Throughout the year, Jason began getting rid of stuff and sending notes to his family. After a final attempt, Jason was admitted to a hospital in Colorado, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disease. McGee said after 2-3 days of medication, he was already more himself.

McGee became involved with NAMI after she saw an ad in the newspaper for the family-to-family class. “I read that and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this was meant for me,’ " she said.

Even after the first meeting, McGee said she knew the experience was going to be great for her family.

“We all had this pain and this hurt we hadn’t been able to share because there’s so much stigma around mental illness,” McGee said.

Eventually, McGee’s son moved back to the area with his family, but because of probation, he lived with his mother for seven months and became involved with NAMI as well.

Now back with his family, McGee said Jason is deeply involved with NAMI in Vancouver, Wash. Although he still battles depression, McGee said that not only hers but Jason’s life has been changed by the organization.

“It certainly is the best thing that’s happened for all of us,” McGee said. “We’re blessed he’s the kind of person that wants to help himself.”

McGee has since expanded her involvement with NAMI. She is one of the teachers who will lead Sandy’s upcoming NAMI family to family class that will run through the end of November will speak at the NAMI Clackamas County Gala on Sept. 13.

“I’m passionate about helping other families to the extent that I’ve been helped,” McGee said. “When a family has to cope on their own with mental illness and then find a group that gets it, it’s like a new world opens up.”

The NAMI family-to-family class in Sandy runs 6:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Nov. 25. If you would like to be a part of this free class, contact NAMI as soon as possible at 503-344-5050.

NAMI also offers a support group every third Saturday of the month at Immanuel Lutheran Church.

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