by Elizabeth Hanes
No one understood why Michele Wms-Smith’s younger sister acted out of character at times. Michele said their siblings chalked it up to her sister “being a spoiled brat.”
But when her sister received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and began having trouble caring for herself and her children, the family knew she was in an unfamiliar and scary place. Michele reached out to forge a new bond with her sister, one based on care and hope – striving to reach mutual trust and knowing that it would take time. “When she spoke to me about her struggles, I needed to just listen.”
“Just because you have a mental health challenge does not mean you’re not smart,” Michele says. “My sister was very intelligent and one of the most creative people I knew. She would often help and give to others, before helping herself.”
Taking a supportive approach while living out of state, Michele determined to work hand-in-hand with her sister to support her through the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. Michele started by providing emotional support through daily phone calls with her sister. Michele delved deeply into educating herself about her sister’s diagnosis, the supports that she would need, and discovering potential side effects and evaluating her sister’s response to her medications. Through time, Michele took on a greater role in helping her sister manage her medications.
“One time, my sister was hospitalized and told me she wasn’t receiving adequate care,” Michele said. She immediately made phone calls to the hospital advocating on behalf of her sister. For many families, this is the greatest obstacle – hospital staff often lacks empathy for the families who are terrified and concerned. Both the family voice and their loved one’s input are often muted. “It wasn’t easy, but I got her discharged from that hospital and transferred to another.”
The persistence and support Michele showed her sister made a significant difference in her sister’s quality of life. But perhaps the biggest growth came to Michele, herself, who volunteers for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and today works as a Family Advocate with the Family Education and Resource Center (FERC), a MHSA-funded program of Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services. Michele’s main goal is to bring awareness, education and support to others who are facing mental illness in their families.
“After what our family went through, I made it my mission to help others so they would not have to experience what we and so many other families have been through. The endless search for available and appropriate resources and judgment-free support is a very traumatic experience.” Michele says, “Family members go through so much. They need resources, and also someone who can empathize with their feelings of shock, sadness, grief and the unknown. Unfortunately, the unknown. Unfortunately, the unknown for my family was losing my sister too early – she passed away eight years ago.”
Michele connects families with community resources across Alameda County. But perhaps her greatest contribution is connecting with families on a personal level, by sharing her own experiences and providing a listening ear.
“I really see the role of FERC as bringing hope to the community,” Michele said. “If a family member is feeling they have nowhere to turn, I hope they realize we are here for their journey.”