The Solace of Family

We are happy to be welcoming a new contributor to Recovery Talks, Sylvie Bouchard, who provides family peer support in Emergency at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute.

The first position of its kind at the Douglas, Sylvie’s is an invaluable role; supporting families as one who has also experienced firsthand what can be involved when someone you love is experiencing mental illness.

As a clinical social worker who has worked in mental health for more than twenty years, two things have stood out to me the most about the families that I have known; first how very much families want to help and have often been the best and sometimes only advocates for their children, parents, husbands, wives, siblings, grandparents, and secondly, I have never met someone experiencing a mental illness for whom the understanding and support of their family does not in some way play a crucial role in their recovery.

My bias is that a sense of belonging, of being important, of mattering to someone who loves us, is often fundamental to helping us find our out ways out of mental illness, and in order to keep ourselves healthy in managing the demands that life makes of us.

Let me be clear. Family in my view is not just biology. At a recent Holiday gathering of my family, more than half of those present were not blood relatives, but friends who have either so long been a treasured part of my life, or so became such a vital part of my world that they are my family.

Our understanding of families affected by mental illness has changed drastically during my time as a social worker, and today we are realising that family members often face the same stigma, discrimination, and isolation that comes with having a mental illness.

I have heard time and time again how parents have been asked what they did wrong by friends, colleagues, even some health professionals who still hold misconceptions about families being the cause of mental illness where parental style has been blamed for everything from schizophrenia, to eating disorders.

To be sure families are “dynamic”, that is to say that they are a living, changing organism. None are perfect, many are struggling, but those struggles alone do not account for the onset, development or continued presence of a mental illness.

The Academy of Eating Disorders, an international professional organisation dedicated to providing leadership world-wide in the areas of research, treatment and prevention of eating disorders, has issued the following statement in order to send a clear message about this:

The AED stands firmly against any model of eating disorders in which family influences are seen as the primary cause of eating disorders, condemns statements that blame families for their child’s illness, and recommends that families be included in the treatment of younger patients, unless this is clearly ill advised on clinical grounds..

There are many things that we can learn are more helpful in supporting our family member facing a mental illness, and many things we will find out are less helpful. Some will be a relief, like finding out we are not to blame, or responsible for “making them get better”.

Some don’t seem to make sense, like being told to “give them space to try things at their own pace” when you are desperately worried for them, and some are downright tough, like learning to focus on taking care of yourself more when all you can think about is them.

For those living with a mental illness, one of the reasons it can be so difficult to accept the help of our family is that we are often so scared of disappointing our families, of letting them down. We can often feel like we have put them through so much, how we can expect them to continue to be there for us.

Which is where the real power of family lies for someone experiencing a mental illness; in the realisation that someone will stand by us even in the times we feel we deserve it least and need it most.

ANEB Qc who offers ongoing support groups for family members of sufferers of eating disorders will be having a CHAT session on January 29th at 6:30pm.

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Posted in Advocacy, Coping, anxiety, change, distress, eating disorders, family, helper role, lived experience, mental health services, recovery, stigma, treatment.

Posted on 13 Jan 2013, by Linda Lee Ross

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One comment to The Solace of Family

  1. Sylvie Bouchard
    On Jan 16th 2013 at 15:12

    Thank you for your touching post Linda Lee. As a caregiver, I sometimes forget that the person I care for might be afraid to disappoint or let me down. It is so essential to undertand the perspective of both sides, the person who needs care and the caregiver. I am glad you bring this point. Thanks also for reminding us that families often face the same stigma, discrimination, and isolation that comes with having a mental illness.