Laura Kaponer

There’s a saying that “mental illness is a family disease.” Felicia Vairo can speak to this first hand, as her youngest daughter, Emily, was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder in the summer of 2015.

Emily was described as a model child, consistently excelling at all things put before her, including graduating college a full year ahead of schedule with a double major in French and international business.

At 22 years old, while living in New York, away from her family, Emily started to exhibit certain actions very much out of character: posting strange photos on social media, boundless energy, conflicts with friends and family, and risky behaviors.

A visit for a family reunion in South Carolina quickly escalated to an evaluation at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, where she received her Bipolar I Diagnosis.

Felicia was shocked as concerns began to mount about whether Emily would ever have a normal life again, find happiness, and what the journey ahead would be like.

One of the biggest challenges Felicia felt was trying to find the absolute best care for Emily. Most insurances have stringent limitations on what they will cover for mental health care, especially when compared to physical illnesses.

In addition to finding the appropriate medical providers, treatments can prove to be a financial burden to many. But the Vairos were determined to do whatever it took to give Emily the best chance at her recovery.

What has helped the most in this process is that Felicia and the rest of the family took the initiative to play an active role in Emily’s recovery. It’s important to figure out that balance of “being there” and allowing Emily the ability to stand on her own, trusting her ability to make her own choices.

Offering support could be anything from helping Emily get to and from her appointments to planning special activities to remind her that she is loved, valued and important. Felicia became an active member of NAMI Lowcountry, attending state conferences, joining the Recovery Council, and volunteering as a Family Support Group facilitator.

It was essential, she believes, to learn as much as she could about the illness, the treatments, and being an advocate for the mentally ill community at large.

It’s easy to focus on the hardships a family can experience when a loved one has a mental illness, but Felicia has a different approach altogether. She feels Emily’s diagnosis was a blessing in disguise because it brought the entire family much closer together.

Although this approach is at times stressful, the family as a whole had to reevaluate the dynamics and habits to help everyone function in a healthier way as a team. Everyone is continuing to learn and grow throughout this process.

Felicia enjoys referring to two particular items in NAMI’s “Principles of Support” for guidance: “We expect a better future in a realistic way” and “We will never give up hope.”

For further information on the services and support groups offered locally, visit

Laura Kaponer is a mental health advocate and social media blogger, as well as a volunteer with the local chapter of NAMI. #LauraKaponeris1in5 (as 1 in 5 Americans have a mental illness).