Reprinted from the "Families" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 8 (3), pp. 34-35
When I was asked to write about Strengthening Families Together—a course offered by the BC Schizophrenia Society (BCSS)—I was surprised. There are certainly other people in the BCSS who are more experienced at teaching the course. Nevertheless, as I thought about what to write, I realized I have a special view of the importance of helping family and friends understand how a loved one lives with a mental illness of any kind.
I am a retired registered psychiatric nurse who practised for over 40 years in acute inpatient care and in a day hospital program. I am the mother of an adult who has recovered from a severe depression and I learned first-hand that making time for myself helped my child feel less of a burden. In addition to teaching the Strengthening Families Together course, I volunteer for the BCSS’s Penticton Branch in the role of president and am actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the branch. And I am a person who had polio in 1953 and who learned to adapt to my limitations, thanks to the support and encouragement of my parents.
In the mid-1990s, as clinical resource coordinator for the Penticton Regional Hospital’s psychiatric day hospital program (closed in 2005), I worked with the local BCSS branch to bring family support to the Department of Psychiatry. The purpose of the BCSS branch was to bring hope and coping skills to family members toward alleviating the burden of mental illness.
We held weekly family support sessions at the day hospital program. Our clients, and some of our inpatients who would be graduating to the day program, were encouraged to invite family members to come to the optional weekly sessions and meet with BCSS volunteers.
Strengthening Families Together
Strengthening Families Together is a 10-session education program developed by the Schizophrenia Society of Canada for family members and friends of individuals with serious and persistent mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and other related disorders. The program provides information on living daily with a mental illness.
Topics presented include:
The course is offered across BC. To find out about a Strengthening Families Together program in your area, visit the BC Schizophrenia Society website at www.bcss.org.
Clients did invite their family members or other support people because we made a strong case for how it would help the person in their recovery. Family is part of any mental health consumer’s recovery. So it’s important that the family understands how best to help their family member. The fact that we served a meal also helped draw family members to the sessions!
The sessions weren’t facilitated. They were very informal gatherings, defined by the people who came. Activities that took place were voluntary and often very client-specific. One client family used the time to sort family pictures. For another family, the parent (client) and teenager played chess and practised focusing on the game rather than on the parent’s concerns about the child.
For our families, it was an opportunity to socialize without being concerned about illness or illness-related behaviours—for some it was the first time in months, or years. For some people, it was the very first time they were able to acknowledge their family member’s illness. Some family members began to have hope and become aware of new ways to cope.
Our client’s family members attended the regular BCSS support groups and many chose to take the Strengthening Families Together course when it was offered by the BCSS branch. When our clients completed surveys, on discharge from the day hospital program, many commented on the high value of having family members come to the weekly family sessions. For example: “They understand my illness better”; “They have started calling me more often and visiting.”
About the author
Sharon is a retired psychiatric nurse and President of the Penticton Branch of the BC Schizophrenia Society