Not one to be defeated, in 1994 LaVerda Allen, a well-known local entrepreneur, was instrumental in forming the African American Family Support Group (AAFSG) in Alameda County.
When she saw the drastic change in her 19-year-old son’s personality, she turned to the Mental Health Association of Alameda County for answers. As a result, the Mental Health Association assisted her in developing a family caregiver group to “help us best meet the needs of our loved ones who have mental illness and take care of the needs of the rest of the family,” Allen said.
When mental illness strikes, seldom does the individual or his/her family member, have a grip on what is happening. Understanding symptoms, coping strategies and knowledge of community resources is vital to creating opportunities for recovery.
Family caregiver knowledge of symptoms of serious mental illness (often combined with substance abuse), the importance of treatment and navigation of the mental health care system can make a huge difference in a favorable outcome for a loved one. This year the African American Family Support Group celebrates its 25th year, still meeting under the auspices of the Mental Health Association. The group continues to offer support, information and referral to community resources but also emphasizes the message that self-care for family caregivers is essential.
Family members often say that any family with a member suffering from severe mental illness is in for harsh times. But as the East Bay Express described in December of 1994, “African American families face additional stresses, including the fact that Black people with conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are more likely to end up in the hands of the criminal justice system rather than the mental health system.”
Fear of police violence also can discourage African American families from calling police on a 5150, the code for getting someone to a psychiatric hospital if he/she is of danger to himself/herself or to another person.
These issues make it clear that African American families must continue to press for changes in the mental health care and criminal justice systems.
A positive development is the funding by the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services of the Mental Health Association for a series of African American Family Outreach Project workshops throughout the county.
Steve Bischoff, the Executive Director of the Mental Health Association says these workshops “introduce families to County-funded services for people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse and to the Association’s Family Education and Resource Center which helps families to navigate the service systems and get help. Most important, the workshops introduce them to other families dealing with these issues and shows them they are not alone.”
Support group meetings are held from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on the 4th Tuesday of each month (except December) at the main office of the Mental Health Association at 954 60th St., Ste. 10 in Oakland. Call (510) 835-5010 for more information. Meetings are confidential.