People whose spouses or children are struggling with mental illness find a community of support in Westchester

By Michael Reyes

When Mercedes Garcia’s 20-year-old son was hospitalized last May for schizoaffective disorder, she saw no clear path to the kind of support and advice she needed as a parent.

Navigating the mental health care system for the first time was daunting. Medical language from doctors and psychiatrists added more confusion. The 52-year-old insurance agent was constantly trying to adjust herself to the new reality of helping her son manage a combination of depression and schizophrenia.

Then close friends introduced Garcia to the South Bay chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The volunteer-based organization offers a free 12-week “Family-to-Family” course in Westchester focused on education and support — a place where Garcia was able to learn from parents, spouses and caregivers dealing with a loved one’s mental illness.

“I didn’t know what to do at all. It was a lifeline,” Garcia said.

The gatherings teach participants about the broader impacts of mental illness and allow space for people to share and listen to  personal stories. Topics include reviewing medication and trading strategies for sensitive interpersonal communication and keeping loved ones on the road to recovery. The hope is for participants to leave with the confidence to provide steady and compassionate support.

“NAMI South Bay does a good job of giving you the information you’re not getting when you go to the doctor or, when you have a child who is older and can refuse [care], a way for you to talk to their doctor,” Garcia said. “It was thankfully through NAMI South Bay that I learned about what my son was going through.”

Garcia’s son is moving through the recovery process and is now attending college.

One in 17 Americans is living with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder, according to reports by NAMI’s national headquarters.

“It’s much more common than people realize. It’s not a character disorder; it’s a chemical imbalance in the brain,” says NAMI South Bay President Paul Stansbury, 70.

“One of the key messages of NAMI is that you’re not alone,” adds Stansbury, whose 37-year-old son showed symptoms of  schizoaffective disorder in early adulthood. “I think we all felt at some point that we were alone in this, so to get that message across is healing and critical.”

In addition to “Family-to-Family” group meetings, NAMI South Bay offers a “Peer-to-Peer” program to build a sense of community and mutual support among people dealing with their own mental illnesses.

There’s also a special group for caregivers of young children.

In November, Garcia became one of three trained moderators for a new NAMI South Bay Family Support Group in Westchester.

“I felt the information was important and that we needed to share it,” Garcia said of paying forward the knowledge she gained from her initial 12-week session.

The NAMI South Bay Family Support Group meets monthly, and participation is confidential and free. The group welcomes people new to mental health challenges and those who have been struggling for years. The diversity of relationships to mental illness exposes the group to a range of resources.

“Hearing others’ stories sometimes allows you to deal with your own much better,” says Stansbury. “You learn to deal with everything more rationally as opposed to out of fear.”

“The individual with mental illness may receive help, but there’s no help for their family members,” said part-time teacher Anna London, 52, one of the trained moderators who works with Garcia.

Struggles with stigma, denial and privacy are constant themes in the Family Support Group.

Garcia says facilitators do their best to meet participants where they are in the process.

“I found that the important thing about it all is to talk about it, because there are people who may know something,” Garcia said. “It’s all just a learning process. Time heals, but there’s a lot to know and a lot to learn.”

NAMI South Bay’s “Family-to-Family” class is meeting from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays through May 25 at Visitation School, 8740 S. Emerson Ave., Westchester.

Family Support Group happens from 6:30 to 8 p.m. the first Monday of each month (the next one is May 2) at Visitation Parish Center, 6561 W. 88th St., Westchester.

For more information, visit