Parents and families of adults with serious mental health disorders carry a huge and ongoing burden.

Figuring out how to lighten the load is the theme of a free conference on the afternoon of June 24 that’s open to families, caregivers, professionals and anyone else who’s interested. The event is sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southwest Washington and named for Jean Lough, one of the founders of the group, who died in 1995.

NAMI executive director Peggy McCarthy said the local group hosted a few “Jean Lough meetings” in the late 1990s, before the effort ran down. But in recent years, she said, NAMI Southwest Washington has been so busy and growing — because it’s so needed — that the nonprofit agency is announcing the restart of its annual Jean Lough Memorial Symposium.

This year’s topic is “Families in Limbo,” and the aim will be to generate a solution that everyone can take back to their respective worlds and test out. McCarthy said she doesn’t know what that solution looks like yet — it’s up to this very specialized and seasoned group to apply its expertise and generate something useful, she said.

What she does know, she said, is that the families of adults with mental illness “play all these critical roles, and there’s really no end to them.”

What sorts of roles? They’re landlords, she said, because so many of their children never leave the shelter of home — whether they’re 20 or 60, McCarthy said. They’re peers and companions because those children are often quite isolated and “don’t have any other friends,” she said. If the adult child isn’t bringing in any income, parents may well be the ATM too.

And they are protectors — because when the child goes into crisis, they’re the ones who have to make decisions about what to do. That’s never easy, McCarthy said, because calling the police when your mentally ill child is having an uncontrollable episode “is like playing Russian Roulette” with that child’s life, she said.

“You never know if they’ll wind up in the hospital, or in jail — or worse,” she said.

And they are lifelong caregivers, she added, with an additional worry: What happens to the child when we’re not around anymore?

A couple of speakers will open with observations about the impact of mental illness on families and communities, McCarthy said; after that, smaller groups will develop strategies that the whole gathering can evaluate. McCarthy said she really wants to emerge from this meeting with a concrete, positive strategy people can take home and try.

“Well get together again next winter and evaluate our progress,” she said.

This year’s Jean Lough Symposium, “Families in Limbo,” is set for 1 to 4:30 p.m. on June 24 at Clark College’s Gaiser Hall, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way. Attendance is free, but please register by calling NAMI at 360-695-2823. And here’s the link to learn more about the local NAMI.

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