April's MVP: Ted Cooley

April's MVP: Ted CooleyNAMI volunteer offers hope to families affected by mental illness.

Dealing with mental illness can be a baffling and traumatic experience for everyone involved.

But thanks to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), family members of the affected now have somewhere to turn.

Bluffton resident Ted Cooley, who was named NAMI’s 2008 Volunteer of the Year in South Carolina, knows first-hand what it’s like to see a loved one suffer from mental illness —his son has schizoaffective disorder.

“You have someone who is very successful and lives a wonderful life, then all of a sudden strange things start to happen,” said Cooley, citing a statistic that one in five families today are touched by mental illness. “They go from being a loving person to a person who has all these crazy ideas, and the parents have no idea what’s wrong or how to deal with it.”

Cooley explains that people who are severely mentally ill can rarely lead normal lives. Often they cannot work, pay their bills, sustain friendships or function on a basic level, making them dependent on immediate family members — particularly parents — who become their caregivers. These are not cases wherein a person goes to a psychiatrist, receives medication, then goes on to live a normal life; these are cases where even multiple medications may do little more than stabilize the person.

“It’s kind of a desperate situation,” Cooley said of the experience he and his wife Betty had with their son. “We were completely lost and we didn’t know what to do. Then we found NAMI and ever since, we’ve worked really hard to help other parents lessen their stress. But it’s a long process to take someone who is mentally ill and reach some sort of stabilization—there’s no quick fix.”

During the past five years, Cooley’s volunteer work with NAMI has included four years as treasurer and two as president of the board of directors for NAMI Beaufort County.

He is also vice-chairman of the board of directors of Coastal Empire Community Mental Health Centers and a member of the NAMI state board.

He has been extremely active in fund-raising efforts, while he and Betty form a sort of front line in local efforts: when someone calls NAMI for the first time, the Cooleys are the first to get involved. NAMI originally began as a support network for caregivers (generally family members) who can attend seminars, classes, educational programs and support groups.

But over the years it has expanded to include activities and services for people suffering from mental illness. The bottom line is that NAMI is there for anyone who seeks its help.

“Things can get better, things will get better,” affrms Cooley. “But it takes the focused interest of the caregiver. They have to be proactive and they have to be very strong because any day you could have a relapse. NAMI provides on-going support and direction to help people find stabilization and stay there, and one of our guiding principles is that there is always hope.”