MERCED -- Cindie and Jon Dibblee know how difficult it can be when there's someone in the family suffering from a mental illness.
The Merced couple has a 21-year-old son, Alex, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and a personality disorder a few years back. They have their good times, but things can be tough when Alex, who was adopted from South Korea as an infant, has dreadful episodes.
"Your whole life is consumed with a roller coaster," Jon Dibblee said.
The couple is one of many families who have attended the free 12-week Family-to-Family classes offered by the Merced County branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The classes are designed to help families more effectively cope with the challenges of dealing with a loved one who's suffering from severe mental illness. This fall, the group is also going to offer the classes in Spanish.
Having a family member suffering from mental illness is like having a loved one dealing with cancer or any other life-changing illness, said Mary Hofmann, president of alliance in Merced County.
She said that for many families, it's an unexpected change, and there aren't many places they can go to learn how to deal with it. The class "gives them the tools to help their friend or relative and also to help themselves," she said.
Participants in the classes can learn about new medications, hear other people's experiences and develop a better understanding of what their family member is going through.
Hofmann said those suffering from a mental illness need support. "Families are one of the major predictors of recovery," she said.
Cindie and Jon Dibblee were going through a rough time when they decided to take the class. They found the training to be a comfort.
"The class was nice because everybody can tell their stories, and we all can relate to it because we all have the same kind of stories," Cindie Dibblee said.
The couple considered themselves fortunate after hearing about families who were in much worse situations because their loved one didn't want to seek treatment or take medication. "We are very lucky because he (Alex) takes his meds," Cindie Dibblee said. "He's never fought us about that."
Alex has been medicated since he was almost 17, Jon Dibblee said, but he's gone through some difficult times.
When those times come, the Dibblees said they have a better understanding of why his brain is the way it is and why he's acting the way he is. When he acts out, they said, they learned not to react.
His mother said it was good to realize that people with mental illnesses can be successful and learn to live with it.
Alex Dibblee said the class gave his parents more insight on what he's dealing with.
"Now, they know more on how to help me cope with my disease, and when I'm feeling a certain way, they say, 'Let's try to cope with it here,' and then if I need to go to my psychiatrist, then I do," he said. "But we try to cope with it as much as we can here before we go to my psychiatrist."
It's not just parents and children that are taking advantage of the Family-to-Family classes. Married couples are using them to help spouses.
Lisa Jacquez said the classes provided her new insight into the causes of mental illness and the agony it brings the afflicted -- especially her husband.
"It gave me a much greater understanding and sympathy," she said. "I became more sensitive toward him and more determined to get him help."
It's difficult to have a spouse with a mental illness because all the marital issues make the situation extremely complicated, she said. "But if you as a spouse know what's available to help your mate, that can salvage the relationship," she said.
Today, Jacquez is one of the program's volunteer facilitators, sharing with others what she has learned.
"They will meet a lot of new friends who have been through the experience, they will learn to cope, learn to laugh and learn to live," Hofmann said of those who come to a class.
"They'll leave the class with tools and strategies and the support to succeed and to help their loved one," she said.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.