Social and Leisure fun for Kids living with Parental Mental Illness
Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (2), p. 46
Children living with a mentally ill parent are faced with challenges their peers will probably never face. The challenge of service providers is to strengthen and support families to enhance protective factors that contribute to both the parents’ and children’s mental health. Protective factors for children include supportive environments, strengthening communities, developing interpersonal and personal skills, and a strong relationship with a healthy adult.
The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA) Committee for Supporting Families with Parental Mental Illness (SFWPMI) was formed several years ago in an attempt to address these concerns and to advocate for strategies that would target the needs of the family. One noted success for the committee is that VCHA mental health teams now ask adult clients as part of the intake interview whether or not they have children. The SFWPMI Committee also developed a toolkit for counsellors working with children whose parents have a mental illness (see resource list at the end of the article). Another successful project is the Super Saturday Club (SSC) for children living with parental mental illness.
The SSC had its beginnings at the Family Day organized by the Northeast Mental Health Team in February 2001, where parents were given an opportunity to express some of their needs and issues. One of the concerns identified was about children’s feelings of emotional loss, even though the parent was physically present in the home; a related concern was about not being able to provide their children with social and leisure activities. Some of the comments from parents included: “I need someone to take my child out when I’m lying in bed all day feeling too depressed and tired to go out,” “I feel guilty when my kids spend a weekend inside because of my mental illness,” “I don’t want my child to end up isolated like me,” “I want my child to have normal opportunities like other children have.”
The SSC was a response to these concerns, voiced by both service providers and parents. It began as a pilot project in July 2001 to provide much needed positive social and leisure access for children, allowing a group of children from the Northeast and Midtown mental health teams an opportunity to go on leisure outings one Saturday a month. In the second year, children of adult clients from the Grandview/Woodlands mental health team joined in. Recently, VCHA has just approved increased funding for Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to add an additional Saturday to the program that will provide support to the South Mental Health Team families. This will mean a total of 24 children and their families will benefit from the program. Coast Foundation will also play an administrative and program development support role.
Now heading into its fourth year, the Vancouver Recreation Department of the CMHA Vancouver-Burnaby Branch has successfully developed a popular, innovative program that enriches the lives of children whose parents have a mental illness. Two Saturdays each month, two separate groups of 12 children ranging in ages from 8–12 years meet for outings such as skating, bowling, nature park trips and pizza parties.
The recreation therapists and activity workers at CMHA – Tess Rogalsky, Brent Cross and Arietha Jacks – have developed a strong, cohesive group of children who benefit socially and emotionally from the semimonthly outings. The staff have also become role models and mentors to the children. According to staff, many behavioural and social problems happened in the beginning, but as the months passed, a cohesive, supportive group dynamic developed. Says Tess, “They look out for each other. Friendships have developed outside the monthly meeting.”
The staff is also sensitive to issues that impact the family as a whole. Children of parents with a mental illness often miss out on opportunities for socialization and recreation due to a number of factors such as lack of financial resources, lack of transportation and the impact of the parent’s mental illness on their ability to plan for and carry out these events. Single parents, in particular, have the added stress of trying to occupy their children on weekends without the support of a spouse and are often without resources for respite such as babysitting. The program addresses such barriers, as there is no cost for children to participate in this program, which includes lunch as well as a fun day of activities, and children are picked up from their home in the morning and dropped off at the end of the day.
Impacts of the Program
Through the program, the children who participate get a chance to experience safe, enriching, social and recreational experiences that they probably otherwise would not get a chance to have. The program also expands the social networks of the children and promotes social skill-building. While their children are on the Saturday outing, parents benefit from an opportunity to focus on their own self-care.
Within the first year of the program, adult case managers from VCHA mental health teams had already seen the positive overall impact on participating families. For instance, one therapist said that her client struggles with profound negative symptoms of mental illness, specifically apathy and lack of motivation. Despite what would ordinarily be barriers to her child, the SSC allows her daughter to have fun with other children in a safe and positive environment. Another client suffers from depression and shares little play activity with her son. During the child’s participation in SSC, the family and child worker has noticed an increase in positive social interaction and also in his self-esteem.
Feedback from parents is equally supportive of the SSC. One parent said that the SSC alleviates the guilt she feels about not having enough money to help her daughter enjoy enriching activities. Another parent, who suffers from panic disorder, is often too anxious to go out and has difficulty focusing her attention on her son’s needs. Through the program, however, her son’s recreational and social needs can be addressed.
Perhaps the greatest strength of the program is the consistency it has provided for the children – despite the changes they are faced with regarding their parents’ mental health, or custody arrangements, or challenges to their own coping skills. The SSC is designed to provide long-term support to children who cope with parental mental illness. Even though the program and activities are designed for a specific age group, children are not automatically asked to leave the program once they reach a certain age. Instead, they are allowed to naturally mature out of the program, based on their own decision about when they are ready to graduate. Many of the children are part of the original group that started in 2001.
Tess Rogalsky explains that a big part of the program is that it gives the kids a place to ‘sound off’ if they need to and receive some support as well. The SSC provides an environment where the kids know that both the adults and kids are going to understand if they’ve had a bad week at school or home.
Jim Marsh, the CMHA Community Rehabilitation Team Leader, concurs. He says: “True friendships have developed. For many children, this program is the most stable part of their lives. It’s too bad that more resources aren’t available for this type of service because when treating mental illness, you need to treat the whole family.”
Summary and Conclusion
Having a mental illness may make parenting difficult, but good clinical care, active management of symptoms, and access to effective rehabilitation services can enhance outcomes for both parent and child. Partnerships between adult mental health services and child services are essential for supporting families with parental mental illness. The SSC is a perfect example of bridging professional and community supports to enhance a child’s chances for success as he or she matures.
Funding for the pilot project came from Vancouver Community Mental Health Services, Vancouver/Richmond Health Board, the CMHA Vancouver-Burnaby Branch and private donors. Now a full-fledged program at CMHA, the SSC is funded by the VCHA until March 2005. CMHA is currently seeking funding opportunities to cover the $24,000 annual cost to maintain this valuable program on an ongoing basis.
The SFWPMI Committee feels that one of the key reasons for securing future funding is to maintain this cohesive group of children so that important social and community supports are enhanced in the families’ lives. Everyone involved in the SSC program – from service providers, to recreation staff, to the parents themselves – acknowledge the value of these supports outside of a clinical setting. The friendships formed among the children will become part of the positive social networks that will get them through adolescence, and make it easier for them to cope with their parent’s illness as they go through life.
Helping Children Whose Parents Have a Mental Illness
A Tookkit for Conclusion
The toolkit is a collection of current resources and references materials designed to assist case managers and family and child workers from the mental health teams in Vancouver Coastal Mental Health Authority (VCHA). This toolkit was developed by the VCHA Committee for Supporting Families with Parental Illness, in partnership with the Justice Institute of British Columbia. It is available from their website at www.jibc.bc.ca/clcl
The Super Saturday Club
A Review of an Innovative Recreational Program for Children Living in Families with Parental Mental Illness (August 2002). Canadian Mental Health Association, Vancouver-Burnaby Branch. This is the program evaluation after the first year of the pilot project. See www.cmhavb.bc.ca
Principles and Actions for Services and People Working with Children of Parents With a Mental Illness
(April 2003). Austrialian Infant, Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health Association - Children of Parents with Mental Illness Initiative. This draft document is based on consultations across Australia and an extensive literature research. See www.aicafmha.net.au
About the Author
Jeri-Lyn is a member of the Committee for Supporting families with Parental Mental Illness. She coordinates the Volunteers in Partnership Programs at the Canadian Mental Health Association Vancouver-Burnaby Branch, where volunteers provide one-to-one social and leisure support for adults with a mental illness