When Ann Lippincott learned her adult daughter had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, it hit her family hard.
Lippincott said she knew nothing about mental illness at the time, and after hearing of her daughter's diagnosis in June 2003, "the rug was pulled out from under me."
That initial connection proved invaluable for Lippincott, who now serves as the center's board chairwoman. She was able to connect with other families coping with the mental illness of a loved one.
The Mental Wellness Center hosts a Family-to-Family Class, which Lippincott joined. The 12-week course teaches family members about mental disorders, like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It also instructs them on how to support family members while taking care of themselves.
"Desperate" is the word Lippincott used to describe how she felt when she started the class.
Learning about the physiology and chemistry of the brain, how prescriptions work, and how to cope were many of the topics the class touched on.
Emerging from the course — which she now teaches — was empowering.
"I was informed, and for me having information became a lifeline," she said. "It gave me understanding, so I could do what I needed to do to support myself."
The free program is put on by the National Alliance of Mental Illness, and since the program began in the 1990s, 550 family members in Santa Barbara County have graduated from the class.
The biannual program books up fast, and the fall course that begins this week is already full with a waiting list, with another course starting in the spring, according to Carol Hawkes, MWC family advocate.
Hawkes works with family members and connects them to available resources, including weekly family support groups in which they can ask questions and express concerns about mental illness.
With the family-to-family class, Hawkes has seen siblings come in to learn, as well as spouses and even grandparents.
"We've had many couples tell us that it saved their marriage," she said. "It brings them on the same level."
Ideally, participants will come take the class as a team, a mother, father and a sibling of the person with a mental health diagnosis, Lippincott said.
"My daughter's diagnosis affected all of us profoundly," she said.
Because all of the teachers have gone through the class themselves and have had family members with a mental illness, the class knows that the teachers have lived through similar situations to theirs, she added.
Many families bring in feelings of guilt, that they've somehow had a hand in causing the family member's mental illness.
George Kaufmann, another teacher for the class, said his own son was diagnosed with a mental illness 20 years ago and that Kaufman carried a lot of guilt.
But in the class, "we disavow to the family that they somehow caused this illness," he said. "It's not because of bad parenting."
If people with a mental illness are treated effectively right from the beginning of their diagnosis, Kaufman said recovery is possible.
"In the beginning, we didn't get that help, as a result of that, I have a lot of compassion for these families," he said.
In addition to the more intense Family-to-Family Class, the Mental Wellness Center is also offering a Mental Health First-Aid Class, according to Annmarie Cameron, the center's executive director.
It's an eight-hour course in which participants learn how to respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
"It's akin to CPR in that," she said. "Many times people feel unsure what the right thing to do is (in a crisis.) You're so afraid of saying the right thing that you don't say anything at all."
The course is ideal for church groups, companies and other organizations that want to learn how to respond to someone in a mental health crisis.
To learn more about the Family-to-Family course, contact Hawkes at 805.884.8440 x3206. For more information about signing up for the mental health first-aid course, call 805.884.8440 x3296.