Supporting families’ mental health

Reporter: Christopher Willis

A children’s mural is spread across the wall along with toys on the floor and small tables and chairs. There’s even a kitchenette, meeting room, sofa and lounge chairs in the space. Help, support, education and understanding are needed in mental health and for families and loved ones suffering with mental illness.
Within the walls of Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences (in Whitby) help can be found, especially in the Family Resource Centre (FRC). The FRC officially opened on Friday, Sept. 13 for both the in and outpatients of the hospital and their family members.
They can have a private place to meet and spend time with their children in the play area provided. Families can receive support, and information on mental illnesses and medication as well education on financial or legal issues.
Christine Holland, chair of the FRC subcommittee, said every family is at a different place emotionally. The same goes for their loved one. She said families could use the room for various reasons. When a patient has an appointment, their family member can go to the FRC and read a book by the fireplace or they can pick up material on different mental health topics.
“For another family it may be their first time at Ontario Shores. Their loved one may just have gotten a diagnosis and they are really keen to learn as much as they can say about schizophrenia. They want a lot of information around the illness, the therapy that might help, the medications, some of the side effects and they may want education and information,” Holland said.
Or the families might just want to talk to a volunteer at the FRC about something. There is a kitchenette in the space. A family can order a pizza, have pop and hang out for a while in a place that isn’t institutional. It can also be a place where the caregivers can learn about caring for themselves in the process of looking after a loved one with a mental health issue and being able to remain strong so they can provide the best care for their family member or person.
The area is also a place for families to come and meet others going through similar experiences. Holland said having a shared experience provides support in tough times. And that’s just as important getting information and education on mental health. Through evening focus groups, families, patients and social workers gave input about what they were looking for in a Family Resource Centre. Other surveys have also highlighted what families needed to see in the system.
“They’d say what they needed is more support, in terms of education, access to information and navigation,” Holland said. “Navigation is one of the areas that you always hear families talking about. How to work your way through the services in mental health is very difficult for families. I heard loud and clear that families need family-to-family support as well, meeting other families.”
Holland said families would often mention how difficult it is to sometimes support their loved one, and that their friends and family didn’t always understand. But when they talked to another family who had been through something similar, right away they felt understood and supported.
Caroline Tykoliz, administrative director of the assessment and reintegration program at Ontario Shores, said the FRC happened through the visioning and planning of the executive members of the Family Council at Ontario Shores.
The Family Council is made up of volunteers who represent the hospital and have a loved one with a serious mental health issues. They meet regularly, represent and advocate for families.
Families do not have to belong to Ontario Shores in order to receive support Tykoliz said. “Initially, when the Family Council started three years ago, they focused on families who had loved ones (in the hospital). That grew to families of outpatients and then we got requests from other community agencies. Once we built our programming and got this room we realized we could open it up to anyone.”
She said people can even contact via email and they could be in another country.
Many helpful contributors were involved in creating the FRC, including Ontario Shores Foundation, its fundraising arm.
Neil Hannam, executive director of the foundation, said the first $250,000 raised was to help pay for the construction of the new facility inside the hospital. Another $250,000 will be provided for the program side of it, which could include a speaker series. They recently held the Butterfly Affaire, which raised $100,000 for the FRC.
“It’s such an important program and the future needs will evolve very interestingly as that critical mass of families get together. You’re going to get families at the beginning of the journey and more at the end of the journey.” Hannam said creating the FRC is like building a puzzle and putting all the pieces together.
“We hope that in a few years families will come in and all the puzzle is built, in a sense. Here’s the order they go in, here’s the resources you need, here’s the people to talk to, here’s some peer support from other family members, peer support with lived experience,” Hannam said.