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NAMI and Brotman Partner Up on Free Classes

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Tea Party opposition to his health care legislation has forced President Obama to broach the possibility of allowing states to opt out of elements of the law, including the mandate to purchase insurance; that does not mean that all health care programs are at risk of being amended or repealed.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness' Westside L.A. NAMI branch announced on Thursday that it will be offering its signature courses, such as "Family to Family," at the Brotman Medical Center in Culver City. NAMI offers "Family to Family," a 12-week class, free of charge at its branches nationwide to educate those who have a family member living with a mental illness. This course helps to end stigma, and it gives attendees a sense that theirs is not the only family that has been devastated by what Sharon Dunas, NAMI Westside L.A.'s president, refers to as a "brain illness."

Paraphrasing neurologist Oliver Sacks, who in turn paid homage to President Kennedy's famous dictum in his inaugural address, Dunas said, "Ask not what disease your relative has. Ask what disease has kidnapped the brain of your relative."

At the opening "Family to Family" class at Brotman, Dunas pointed out that evidence-based studies have demonstrated that attendance at NAMI classes "improves the prognosis for your relative," as family members not only gain insight and compassion into the mental illnesses of their relatives; family members also learn to "navigate the mental health system."

Brotman, which has seen a 20 percent rise in psychiatric patients in the past six months, "realizes it has a role in the community," said its executive vice president, Stan Otake, who cited the recent massacre in Tucson, Ariz., in which Jared Loughner murdered six people and wounded 13 others. "It (mental illness) is a disease like diabetes or cardiovascular illness."

While it is not clear that Loughner was mentally ill or anything other than a psychopath, who premeditated his rampage for which he has shown no remorse, it is clear that he should have been hospitalized and denied the right to buy a gun.

Sadly, the narrative about mental illness tends to follow the contours of tragedy. Too often when we read and discuss stories like the Tucson massacre, Charlie Sheen's latest meltdown and Moammar Gaddafi's murderous and buffoonish actions, we attribute them to mental illness, even if the perpetrators are not necessarily mentally ill but rather sadists abusing drugs and behaving badly. Yet we focus on them instead of on uplifting tales like those of Mia St. John, who has overcome obsessive-compulsive disorder to become a three-time boxing champion, and Ron Artest, a Los Angeles Laker guard-forward, whose battles with mental illness did not prevent him from helping the Lakers win last year's NBA title.

We also neglect the stories of dozens of less well-known, law-abiding citizens taking "Family to Family" as well as "Peer to Peer," a NAMI class taught by and attended by those with a mental disorder. (Full disclosure: I took the latter class last fall.) NAMI will be offering both of these programs in English and Spanish at Brotman, which is especially helpful at a time of budget-cutting at the federal and state level.

Someday, it will be nice when we can have a national dialogue about mental illness without drawing any connection to violent crime, the vast majority of which is committed by those who are not mentally ill. In the meantime, with mental illness afflicting roughly one in five citizens in this country, we might all benefit from educating ourselves about psychiatric disorders by taking NAMI classes at places like Brotman.