NAMI N.Ky. offers advocacy, education and support in 12-week series of classes on mental illness

NEWPORT, Ky - Dave Smith had his first breakdown when he was 13.

But his mother said she believes depression started when he was just in the second grade, when she and his dad divorced.

Smith, now 25, has been battling mental illness for years. He is one in four people nationwide who suffer from a mental illness. Nearly one in 10 children have symptoms of mental illness.

Understanding and treating mental illness is family affair, which is why the National Alliance on Mental Illness Northern Kentucky (NAMI) is offering free classes on Thursdays beginning Aug. 8.  The classes will be from 6-8:30 p.m. at St. John’s United Church of Christ, 415 Park Ave., at Nelson Place, in Newport, Ky.

The class will help family members understand and support individuals with serious mental illness, while maintaining their own wellbeing, said NAMI N.Ky., Executive Director Kathy Keller.

The nonprofit advocates educates and supports families dealing with mental illness.
According to NAMI N.Ky., there are 86,125 Northern Kentucky residents suffering from a mental illness and of those, 25,407 have a chronic or serious mental illness and are in need of service and treatment.

Treatment and communication with his family is how Smith, of Alexandria, Ky., said he is able to manage his two mental illnesses.  

His mom, Sheila Berning, remembered some signs of future illnesses on the horizon. She said he was bullied at school— to the point that he would come home upset, telling his mom that he “wanted to die.”

When he was 13, he experienced his first ‘minor emotional breakdown,’ when he allowed his thoughts to consume him. Smith and his mom chalked it up to the growing pains of adolescence.

The symptoms slowly progressed.

When he was 18, he had an episode so alarming that his mom took him to the doctor.

In 2006, after a series of diagnostic tests and several therapy sessions, the teen was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and dissociative disorder, which he said is similar to borderline personality disorder.

“It’s a different thing to live with every day. It’s an ongoing battle. I learn to deal with it and accept it as everyday life,” said Smith of his mental illnesses.

“I have battles that I win but the war is ongoing and it doesn’t feel like an end in sight,” he said.

OCD, if not careful, can overrun his mind, he said, allowing him to easily obsess and lose track of daily functions. When a thought is triggered by a sight or sound, it takes over, he said, nothing else matters.

“Obsession is total domination,” admitted Smith.

He described dissociative disorder as an “out-of-body experience.”

“[My] mind says one thing and my body is on auto pilot—it’s hard to bring the two together to function,” said Smith. “It can be like a light switch and I’m a totally different person altogether.”

Learning To Cope, To Love, To Redefine ‘Normal’

Education, said Berning, is key for the ill family member, as well as the family of the ill.

“[It] teaches you what to expect and that can equip you with the ability to determine if a loved one has a mental illness. You don’t know what you’ve not been told,” she said.

With that in mind, she took a class through NAMI N.Ky., in 2010. She wished she had taken the class when her son was first diagnosed.

“It doesn’t just affect the ill person, it affects everyone around them. It’s a family dynamic,” said Berning, who had not only financial struggles, but was also depressed while seeking treatment for her son.

In a way, she said, she was mourning the loss of what a normal life should be while he was growing up. 

“[You] have this preconceived notion of what life will be and then a wrench is thrown into it,” said Berning.

Wrench or not, Smith is dealing with what he calls an “ongoing fight.”

“It’s not something you can win overnight, but you can win. I’m not alone,” he said.

While Smith attends therapy every other week, regularly takes medication and volunteers at NAMI N.Ky., he credits his mom and NAMI for getting him to the place he is now.

“When you can accept someone for who they are that’s unconditional love,” Smith said of his No. 1 support system, his mom.

“I’m in a better place and better understanding that I can’t do it all by myself,” he said of treating his illnesses. But “I’m cautiously optimistic, very careful with every step I take.”

Healing Is One Step At A Time

“NAMI has been life-changing for us,” said Berning, who now teaches family classes for NAMI N.Ky.

The Thursday evening course, which is free,  includes information on the workings of the brain, the illnesses, and medications; incorporating workshops on problem solving, communication skills and empathy. 

Family members, partners and friends concerned about someone with mental illness qualify to participate. Participation requires advance registration at (859) 261-4080 or email at


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