by Dennis Dalman
The father of Steve Hennes of Sartell committed suicide in 1970 when Steve was only 19, just before Steve enlisted in the U.S. Army, partly to get away from his Little Falls home.
Steve was the third of four sons in the family.
He left behind his mother and a younger brother, 14. It was a wrenching decision, but one Hennes felt he just had to make because living in the shadow of a mentally-ill father was intolerable. His father had been in and out of state hospitals and had lost his job. The good news, after the tragedy of the father’s sad ending is his mother later remarried and enjoyed many years of wedded happiness.
Because of Hennes’ unstable early family life, he has always had deep compassion for those suffering from mental illness and the stresses their loved ones undergo. The memory of his father haunts him because Hennes now feels his father might have been amendable to some kind of treatment or medication except for the stigma against mental illness that existed then.
That is why he and his wife, Wendy, now teach the “Family-to-Family” class at the Unity Spiritual Center in Sartell, the site of the former Celebration Lutheran Church. The program is made possible by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Its local chapter is known as NAMI St. Cloud. It is a 12-week class for family members of individuals with a serious mental illness and offers facts and insights about all forms of mental illness, coping skills, communication skills and how to find resources.
When Hennes was director of the Whitney Senior Center, he became aware of a depression support group sponsored by NAMI, and he was impressed by the program. When he and Wendy were seeking a good volunteer job for their retirement years, NAMI seemed to be the right fit for them. The first step was for the Henneses to undergo a weekend of intense, non-stop training in the Twin Cities. The second step was to start teaching, which they began March 7. They have only two classes yet to teach of the 12-week course, but they are already vowing to teach a new course that will start in September.
The Family-to-Family course calls for at least 14 participants and no more than 22. There are 21 people in the Henneses’ classes. People have already signed up for the course this fall, and a waiting list is likely to follow by the time the course begins.
The Henneses give facts and insightful information about all of the major types of mental illness: clinical depression, bi-polar syndrome, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorders, addictive disorders, panic attacks, anxiety formation, post-traumatic stress disorder and more.
“We educate about the main features of each mental illness, especially about the specific research that is being done and new medications being developed,” Wendy said. “We also help people to do problem-solving when crises come up. There are so many emotional highs and lows with mental illness — mainly lows.”
The Henneses have learned the folly of family members and friends telling someone suffering from mental illness to just “snap out of it.” That cannot be done. A mental illness, Steve noted, is a disorder in the brain. It’s like telling someone suffering from cancer or another physical disease to “just snap out of it.”
People with mental illness need kindness, understanding and loved ones who can help them get through the roughest times.
The Henneses have seen first-hand how knowledge is power. At first the course participants are a bit nervous and hesitant. But as each week goes by, their confidence grows hugely as they inter-relate and learn more and more.
“Knowledge is everything,” Steve said. “The more you know the more prepared you are and the better you are equipped to help yourself and your loved one.”
Wendy said it was thrilling to see the participants gradually open up and become positive, hopeful and confident.
All participants become important advocates in their own right. They develop confidence in talking about mental illness, in enlightening others and in helping to stop the terrible stigma that has always been attached unfairly to the mentally ill. Diminishing and someday erasing that stigma will be a big boost to helping mentally-ill people lead fulfilling lives, NAMI believes.
Armed with knowledge, course participants learn how to combat the rampant stereotypes and myths that surround mental illness. One of the major myths so many believe is mental illness is the “family’s fault.”
“It is not the family’s fault,” Steve said. “It is a brain disorder, and the people who have it cannot help it.”
The Henneses and the course participants carry within themselves fluttering banners of hope, and that is because there is some exciting research now being done for all mental illnesses and increasingly a new spectrum of medications that will almost certainly prove to be revolutionary in their importance. Steve and Wendy are constantly updating the group on those new research findings and new medications now in the testing stages.
The Henneses also have occasional guest speakers, such as Lori Long of St. Cloud, who has been courageous in sharing her story about her long battle with depression. Many celebrities have also helped skewer myths, stereotypes and stigmas, Steve noted — famed celebrities like the late newsman Mike Wallace and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron.
“We’re hoping a support group starts up for family members with loved ones who are mentally ill,” Steve said. “There have been groups like that in this area, but they were either poorly attended or people just did not know about them.”
The Henneses have high praises for both NAMI and the Spiritual Unity Center.
“They’re both doing a great job,” Steve said. “There are thousands of NAMI courses just like this one all over the world. The trainers and the resources NAMI offers have been wonderful. We are strictly volunteers, but NAMI covered some of our costs for training and other things.”
“And the Unity Spiritual Center has been fantastic, supportive and so welcoming,” Wendy added.
Steve shared a powerful statistic: One in four people will suffer some kind of mental illness during some point in his or her lifetime.
“Mental illness can happen to anybody,” he said. “NAMI is doing a fantastic job lobbying at the legislature because in time of budget cuts, mental-illness programs are often the first to get cut.”
Wendy noted the course is totally open to virtually any form of “family,” including close friends of someone who is mentally ill or those of varying sexual orientations.
There are already 14 people registered for the next People-to-People course. There is room for eight more. There is no charge for the course. Anyone interested should call Steve and Wendy at 253-1926.