Elaine first joined NAMI in 1998 after her mother died and she needed help caring for her brother who was living with mental illness. Her postal mail grew ten fold and she learned so much about mental illness when she joined NAMI. Elaine became very involved with NAMI and soon went on to lead support groups. She was inspired by members of the NAMI groups who would do anything to help their loved ones. Elaine loved watching the transformation and understanding that occurred when people learned that we cannot solve all problems, but we will help our family no matter what obstacles we face.
When Elaine and her brother were young, her mom was very involved in his life and committed to finding the right treatment for him. She made sure that he did not hang out with the wrong crowd and always made sure that he was keeping up with his doctor appointments. Elaine expressed that her brother had great respect for his parents. He had good therapists in the 80s and 90s. This was a time when hospitals were being shut down and more money was put into the community. Once Elaine’s mother died, things became very hard for their dad. Elaine took on the role as of caregiver for her brother. She said that if people who have lived with a mental illness experience a loss, they need extra support, but if they receive the right treatment, they will be fine.
Elaine liked spending time with her brother since childhood; they went biking and hiking with each other and went on vacation together. She said that she had noticed that her brother might have had signs that something was wrong mentally, but he did not have a full psychotic episode until he was 21 years old, 6 months after she got married. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and felt very depressed at her wedding, where he was in the wedding party. There were some individuals who were wondering what was wrong with him, but Elaine knew that it was important for him to be in the wedding party. She wanted him to feel included and knew it was important to him. Elaine’s other sibling was engaged at the time and would be getting married 8 months later. She expressed that weddings can be triggering for people who have mental illness because it may feel like other family members are moving on, but they aren’t. This is when her brother sought help from her when he was in his first psychotic episode. She said everyone is highly affected when their sibling is going through a mental health crisis because it affects the whole family.
When asked why she took on the caregiver’s role, Elaine simply said that her brother did not have anyone else to turn to, so she stepped up to the job of being his caregiver. She is happy to see how well he is doing now. He lives on his own and is compliant with his medication. She checks in on him once a week at least, to make sure that he takes his medication and anything else that he may need. Elaine is happy that he has friends that understand him.
The things that helped Elaine the most was the support of her husband and her faith. She said “My faith brings me peace; it tells me that we are not in control of everything but with the help from God we can get through the suffering and through our suffering we can help others. By accepting our suffering and reaching out to those close to us, and other people who are placed in our path to help us, we can find the strength and courage to continue to fight for our loved ones who deserve to have the best quality of life that they can have. If I didn’t have my faith, I wouldn’t know what to do.” Through her faith and God and her membership with NAMI, Elaine was able to be successful in helping her brother live a healthy and happy life.
Elaine Fehrenbach is a current member and was President of NAMI Warren County from 1998-2020. As a Family-to-Family Teacher and a Family Support Group Facilitator, Elaine gained inspiration to run support groups from members who strived to help their loved ones. She has also been a Family & Friends presenter and Siblings Support Group Facilitator. Elaine’s volunteerism is driven by watching the transformation of her efforts in helping family members in spite of the challenges and hardships. She has been a Walk Captain and currently on and past Chair of the Warren County Mental Health Board. She has fought for Behavioral Health Hospital Units. She has also been part of the training team for Warren County’s Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program since 2015. Because of her volunteer work with CIT, Elaine received the Center of Excellence Award from the NJ CIT Center of Excellence in 2016. Elaine’s exemplary work has proven that we can find the strength and courage to continue to fight for our loved ones who deserve to have the best quality of life they can have!