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Family support is vital for people struggling with mental health issues

Jim and Sue wanted to play a supportive role in their grown son's mental health and addictions treatment, but found it frustrating to learn that many treatment programs don't value parental participation once kids become adults.
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​Jim and his family on father's day

"Supporting a vulnerable loved one through a mental health condition, like we continue to do with our son, requires a large degree of collaboration based on trust," says Jim. "That collaboration is between ourselves and our son, but also between us as a family and the healthcare team supporting him."

For this reason, the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction has been a perfect fit for their now-adult son…and them. The Burnaby Centre program not only encourages family participation across the spectrum of treatment, but also recognizes this support as crucial to a successful recover journey.

"I'm training to become a social worker so I know what good care for a vulnerable adult should look like," said Jim, who is from Chilliwack, adding that treatment at the centre has included parental participation and  also addressed their son's mental health and substance-use challenges equally.

Tackling mental health and substance use issues together

The Burnaby centre is the only program of its kind in Canada to view mental health and substance use challenges as the flip side of the same coin.

In addition to having a concurrent disorder, many Burnaby Centre clients also have histories of trauma, which is often why they begin using substances in the first place. Stigma, shame and fear of judgement, is the reason most don't seek early help for their illness.

According to statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five Canadians will be diagnosed with a mental health issue at some point in their lives. Stigma, or shame, is the reason two-thirds most don't seek early help for their illness before the disorder consumes them and takes control of their lives.

Jim began feeling a sense of relief at having his son placed at the Burnaby Centre when he first met Rick Johal, the social work and professional practice lead who became involved in his son's case. When Jim speaks about Rick, it is clear from the emotion in his voice that he made a huge impact on his family.

"Rick gave us his email address and phone number, I promised him we wouldn't abuse this privilege by calling him too often but he told us to not hesitate to contact," Jim recalls. "Rick told us that this was our right as our son's parents. He showed respect and was extremely conscientious."

Actively involving families

For Jim, being actively engaged in his son's care was crucial to feeling validated and involved in what was going on. It also showed that they were taking what he and his son were saying seriously.

"Rick scheduled proactive weekly phone calls and got other members of my son's care team involved to answer our questions. He brought our family together as part of the team and helped us support our son."

For Rick, the benefits of involving family members are many.

"One of the best predictors of outcome for someone with mental health and substance use issues is the level of support after they leave the centre. Having family members who are actively involved and understanding  of the treatment and how to provide that kind of support to their loved one after they leave is really important," says Rick.

"On top of that, families have years and years of knowledge of their loved ones and that wealth of information about what's going on with them. Families are part of the team helping people get back on track."

 Jim's son is now living independently, but he still requires support from his mum and dad, who are helping him to do things like stick to a good diet. They remain hopeful that he'll develop new skills and gain greater independence as time goes on. 

To anyone else who has a loved one with mental health issues, Jim's advice is to listen to and support them while still respecting their child's autonomy.

"Our son is an adult who values his independence, but he also knows we are there for him if he needs us," says Jim. "Rick and the Burnaby Centre showed us what treatment for vulnerable adults can look like when you invite family members in."

If you are concerned about a loved one, support them to get the help they need by encouraging them to speak to a health care provider like a family doctor.

If you want additional support with managing a mental health condition, you can visit Here to Help BC, which has resources to help support struggling family members and yourself.

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