It was a message scrawled on a flip chart in a hotel hallway -- and a message I very much took to heart: "Don't forget about the siblings."
I had spent the previous two days attending a child and youth mental health conference organized by the Institute of Families for Child and Youth Mental Health. The focus of the conference was on redesigning the mental health care system in a way that supports families as they do the critical work of caring for a child or youth who is struggling with a mental illness.
This particular message really hit home for me. Not only do I know what it feels like to be the parent of a child who is struggling with a mental illness, I know what it feels like to be a child who has a family member who is struggling with a mental illness.
You see, during my growing up years, my mom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her illness was quite severe. She was repeatedly hospitalized for weeks or months at a time. As a teenager, I found it difficult to make sense of her mood swings (to say nothing of my own). I often found myself feeling angry -- and then feeling guilty for feeling angry. It was a very confusing time.
When my daughter's mental health struggles began during her early teen years, I worried about the impact her illness was having on her three younger brothers -- whether they were feeling short-changed as she stumbled from crisis to crisis, demanding most of our parenting energies and attention. Once again, I found myself experiencing feelings of anger, guilt, and confusion.
These types of feelings are not uncommon. The parents I interviewed for my new book, Parenting Through the Storm, talk about how challenging it can be to balance the needs of other family members with the needs of a family member who is struggling -- and how critical it is to ensure that all family members are able to tap into the support they need to cope with an extraordinarily challenging situation.
A family-centered approach to care recognizes this reality. It ensures that all family members receive support so that they, in turn, can continue to provide support to the family member who is struggling. When the family is doing better, the family member who is struggling does better (and vice versa).
The Institute of Families for Child and Youth Mental Health is leading the conversation in Canada about the type of support families need in order to thrive when a child or youth is struggling with a mental illness. You will find a number of helpful documents on their website spelling out the benefits of what they are calling a FamilySmart (TM) approach to care. It is a conversation that is long overdue and much needed -- and that has the potential to make a world of difference for children, youth, and families.
Jesse is a true-to-life and heart-wrenching short film by Toronto filmmaker Adam Goldhammer that deals with the joys and challenges of growing up with a sibling who is struggling. (Film description: "After her parents are killed in a car accident, twenty-two year old Kelly Turner finds herself in the overwhelming position of being the sole caregiver for her older brother Jesse who has autism.")
Ann Douglas is the author of Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between (a guide to parenting a child with a mental health, neurodevelopmental, or behavioural challenge). She is also an engaging and inspiring speaker who sparks important conversations about parenting and mental health.