Family support program provides direction and advice to caregivers
Expanding caregiver program offers a variety of groups and information sessions
Denis Riordan felt helpless, alone and completely lost when his 30-something daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia 18 months ago.
She was an economist in mid-career when suddenly she was struck down and life as she knew it came to a grinding halt. Riordan, a recently retired computer scientist, was traumatized. He had no experience in caregiving and didn’t know where to turn.
“It was really completely shocking,” he said. “It’s traumatic. Caregivers need a lot of training and support, and I had no previous experience at all with anything like this. I was completely in the dark; I didn’t have any idea what was going on.”
Fortunately for Riordan and his daughter, a social worker told him about the family support program at The Royal.
The Royal offers information and support groups at a variety of locations from September to June and additional specialized groups at specific times usually following fall, winter and summer schedules.
Led by experienced social workers, sessions run about 90 minutes, often bringing in experts from The Royal and other community health services to discuss subjects such as medications, communication strategies, various therapies and other topics relevant to those caring for people with mental illness.
Aside from providing direct care and support, caregivers are also advocates. It’s a demanding task, and caregivers can be vulnerable to long-term emotional, mental and physical fatigue, and ultimately burnout.
“People like me never encounter having to help somebody who is seriously ill,” said Riordan. “I was completely lost and it took me quite a while. Getting in touch with this group at The Royal was my introduction and it was really a very, very good introduction.
“I’m not sure how I would have found out what I needed to know otherwise. It’s not at all easy.”
The family support groups are evidence-based and open to anyone caring for a loved one with mental illness.
Social worker Juliet Haynes became regional family support program co-ordinator more than a year ago with a mandate to expand it thanks to donations made to The Royal’s Foundation. A team of one, she’s responsible for programs from Cornwall to Deep River to Pembroke.
“Families are the one constant along the mental health journey,” Haynes said. “Whereas, people with mental health challenges come into contact with different mental health providers when they’re ill, it’s the family who are the ones who know all of the difficulties the person has faced — what the triggers were, what has worked, what has been effective. And so if we can partner more with families, it actually benefits the clients, it benefits the families and it benefits the system.”
Different groups address different needs that arise at different stages of the mental health journey, from the potentially overwhelming initial stages of mental illness to longer-term issues like isolation and stigmatization, as well as information on specific illnesses.
“We’ve recognized that families need support in their own right,” said Haynes. “So apart from being a support to the client, they also need support for themselves for their own mental health and well-being.”
She likened it to an aircraft passenger putting on their own oxygen mask before helping another passenger put on theirs.
Riordan has done just that, and he’s breathing a little easier for it. His daughter is improving and he’s better able to cope, so much so he’s considering volunteering in the program to help others like him.
“I have come from absolutely knowing nothing to — I think — really being able to be quite an effective helper for my daughter,” he said. “She really needs somebody.
“There’s a lot to learn. And there’s nowhere to get training but in these workshops at The Royal. It’s almost the best-kept secret in Ottawa, that program. It’s completely amazing.”