For two hours each week over the course of 10 weeks, individuals dealing with mental health challenges can tell their stories and learn coping strategies together without feeling the sting of stigma.

The NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Peer-to-Peer program debuted at the Innovations Community Center in Napa eight weeks ago. On Tuesday, the group discussed the pros and cons of choosing to tell people about their disabilities.

“There are people out there that are scared to come out and share their story because they’re afraid of how people are gonna look at them,” said Ben Robles, Innovations intern and class participant.

A positive thing about coming out with your disability is that you may be able to have a greater support system and find educational resources, he said. On the other hand, he said, you may lose friends due to the stigma around mental illness.

Robles first came to the center about a year ago with depression and anxiety, but now he is working his way to becoming a peer mentor.

“It’s been really positive,” he said of the new class. He’s learned about other diagnoses, how to recognize their symptoms and coping skills.

The curriculum, provided by NAMI, includes ideas about how to cope with feelings associated with diagnoses, and your peers also provide helpful approaches, said Marlene McCabe. Participants have been able to identify what sort of things trigger an emotional outburst and are taught ways to prevent having the same reaction again.

McCabe said that it’s taken her years to work through her mental health problems. Even leaving home to make it to the class is a big step for her.

“It’s hard for me to leave my house,” she said. “I think this is the first lengthy goal I’ve tried to tackle.”

McCabe said she has suffering from agoraphobia with anxiety since 2004. One day she had her keys in her hand and was leaving for work when she realized she wasn’t able to.

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“I’m telling myself to leave, I know I should leave, but I can’t …” McCabe said. Shortly after the agoraphobia set on, she said, she lost her job, her children and her home.

Over the years, McCabe has tried to overcome her fears and anxieties by seeing a therapist, who for a while was making house calls, and by setting small goals – like going outside for therapy and heading to fun things, like concerts.

The 10-week commitment of the Peer-to-Peer class has been her biggest test. It helps knowing that she’s around people who understand, she said.

“It’s beneficial for people trying to muddle through their disability,” said McCabe, who has started working again and hopes to help others going through similar situations.

“It’s gotten easier,” she said. “I know I’m on my way to recovery completely.”

The next session is expected to begin in January. For more information about this program or other programs offered through NAMI or at the center, contact NAMI Solano County at 707-422-7792 or Innovations Community Center at 707-259-8692.

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Maria Sestito is the Napa Valley Register public safety reporter. She covers breaking news as well as crime and courts. Maria came to the Napa Valley Register in 2015 after working at as a reporter and photographer at The Daily News in Jacksonville, NC. S