By MAGGIE GEBHARDT

mgebhardt@dailynews.net

Families touched by the struggle of mental illness will receive a new opportunity to gain support in January.

The Hays affiliate for National Alliance on Mental Illness plans to conduct a series of 12 weekly classes structured to help family members better understand, assist and support mentally ill relatives, said NAMI board member Mary Akins.

NAMI is a mental health organization designed to support the lives of those affected by mental illness. Dedicating itself through research, assistance, treatment and other services, NAMI provides hope for families throughout the country, the board member said.

"We can't keep playing these games of, 'We just can't talk about it,' " Akins said. "We have to talk about it. We have to look at the reality. When we learn to talk about it and deal with it, things get much better."

NAMI's Family-to-Family Education Program, a series of free classes taught by a team of trained volunteers, will meet at First United Methodist Church, 305 W. Seventh, Hays, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. every Thursday beginning Jan. 8. The program continues through March 26.

"The classes are for any adults 18 and older who are family members of someone with a mental illness," Akins said.

While the Family-to-Family classes have been conducted nationally through NAMI for many years, they are new to northwest Kansas.

"Hays has never had this class," Akins said.

Family members of close relatives with bipolar disorder, manic depression, major depression, personality disorder, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, co-occurring brain disorders and addictive disorders are welcome to join the support group.

"People are going to find comfort as they meet others that are dealing with these things," Akins said.

Akins, a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder and NAMI board member, relates to mental illness on both a personal and professional level.

"When I finally started seeking mental health therapy, it helped. But when when I came to NAMI, that is what made all the difference," she said. "I found support through people that understood the same road I was on, who didn't have judgement against me."

Akins said NAMI programs are scenes of "no judgement."

"It's a place of understanding and support that will blow you out of the water and set you free."

Hays' Family-to-Family classes are taught by trained volunteers, such as Akins, who have personal ties to the various struggles of a family dealing with mental illness.

Upon class entry, program participants will receive a notebook and educational information pertaining to their family member's particular mental health issue.

"I want to clarify that this is a class only for family members who have a relative with mental illness," Akins said. "Individuals with mental illnesses need to attend the NAMI Connections Recovery Support Group."

This particular group, led by trained facilitators, meets from 6 to 7 p.m. the first Monday of each month at the Center for Life Experience, 2900 Hall, Hays. Information regarding Connections Recovery Support Group and other classes can be found at www.namikansas.org.

The Family-to-Family Education Program, beginning Jan. 8, requires pre-registration so preparations can be made. For more information or to register, call the Center for Life Experiences at (785) 625-2847 or visit www.nami.org/F2F.

According to www.nami.org/F2F, the Family-to-Family course is highly recommended by professionals, as it provides guidance and coping mechanisms to help with challenges, and assist loved ones as they work toward recovery.

"The stigma for mental illness is so severe," Akins said. "This program is for support, education and advocacy. Participants will receive understanding and compassion."