The new BC Schizophrenia Society (BCSS) Strengthening Families Together – First Nations pilot project
Reprinted from "Indigenous People" issue of Visions journal, 2016 11 (4), p. 33
I am thankful for this opportunity to share details about an exciting program that the BC Schizophrenia Society (BCSS) is offering to First Nations communities.
Previously, my work with the BCSS provided an opportunity to create a First Nations language resource designed to help families coping with mental illness in the Interior region. The intent was to help local First Nations make sense of the medical language used in the mental health field. The one-year project was undertaken in partnership with three local Nations in the Interior: the Tsilhqot’in, the Carrier and the Northern Secwepemc. The project provided us with an initial understanding of the gulf that exists between the medical-language community and the First Nations–language community.
In the past year, I have been privileged to begin new work with the BC Schizophrenia Society. The BCSS has developed a pilot program called Strengthening Families Together – First Nations edition (SFT-FN). This program builds on our previous work to provide better support and clearer information for Aboriginal families facing the challenge of supporting a loved one living with mental illness. It incorporates education in medical language, medical and community support services and traditional First Nations storytelling and healing practices that are particularly relevant for the health and well-being of Aboriginal families.
The 10-session program provides participants with information on symptoms and treatment of various mental illnesses, working with the health and justice systems, advocating for ill family members, addictions and concurrent disorders, and so on. Our aim is to continue to make the program more relevant and responsive for First Nation communities across the province. In consultation with Elders and community partners, the BCSS has adopted “Our Story, Our Journey, Our Strength” as the program’s theme. We feel it effectively represents the process a family undergoes when loving and supporting a person living with a mental illness: our need to be heard, to learn more and to move forward with hope.
The first pilot project
In March 2016, the Tletinqox’tin community in the Cariboo Chilcotin region of BC (Anaham), completed the first pilot program in the community. Participants, Elders, family members and band council were on hand to celebrate the success of the pilot program, and to acknowledge the families in the community that had risked taking the journey to talk about mental illness.
Many participants shared their feelings about the experience. Aggie Harry said she was inspired to push for and take the program because there are many people in her community struggling with mental illness. “I think it will be a lot better because there are now more people who know about mental illness,” she said. “Even myself, I have people in my family that are like that. Now I know where to go and who to contact for help.”
“My own experience is that individuals who have mental illness are eager to seek help once they have a diagnosis,” Chief Joe Alphonse said. “The biggest struggle is often for families. The course was good because it challenged community members.”
“I learned things about mental illness I have never learned about before,” Rosaline Harry said. “I work with a lot of youth so it will help me deal with how they act.”
Yunesi’tin Elder Dorothy Myers was one of the facilitators for the course. She said that it is hard to see a loved one go through mental illness, and she encourages people to watch for signs of depression and to take the time to look after themselves: “It’s good to go somewhere you like to go. Sometimes I go to the river or I sit in the church and pray.”
Our personal stories are the fabric of who we are, where we come from, and how we walk in this world. Everyone has a story to tell, and families living with mental illness are no exception. When shared, our stories provide us with the opportunity to understand, learn and grow together. The Strengthening Families Together – First Nations edition provides families with a culturally safe and caring place in which to share their stories, learn from others and renew their hope.
Many people lose their way in the choppy waters of mental illness. The journey to recovery and wellness is often long and lonely. The program provides an opportunity for families to walk together in their search for support, guidance and understanding, helping families gather information about mental illnesses, share their personal experiences and challenges, and learn from these experiences and each other. When we travel together, our journey becomes easier. Together, we grow stronger.
The new program is family-centered, founded on the belief that experienced family members are best suited to guide and support other families in their healing. Our trained facilitators all have at least one family member living with mental illness, so they have lived experience, wisdom and knowledge to share. They, too, are walking the path to wellness. Their lived experience is our strength.
The first phase of program development is now complete. With the support of an advisory team, primarily from the Stó:lō Nation, we have worked with community representatives to review our curriculum and program delivery. We have also produced two DVDs specifically for an Aboriginal audience. The first DVD, narrated by Lawrence Roberts,1 promotes awareness of the SFT-FN program to the general public. The second DVD is a curriculum resource: it presents the story of Adria, a young First Nations woman from the Tsartlip Band on Vancouver Island, and is narrated by Adria Roberts herself. Adria takes us on her personal journey, before and after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The language of healing
In our experience during the first of the 10 sessions, when First Nations families are introduced to the SFT-FN program, there is a tangible feeling of thankfulness and relief. Family members of people living with mental illness, community members, band staff and council members are actively showing their support for families who frequently live in isolation—not only geographically, but also medically, financially and emotionally because these resources are not easily available to them. During the first meeting, a respectful dialogue is begun, with the collective intention to end stigma and discrimination and move forward to provide family education and support. BCSS staff members are invited to participate in this often humbling experience, in which cultural sensitivity and storytelling are the foundation for family healing. We believe we can embrace the power of all cultures, all languages and all communities to lead families towards a healthy, new way of being. Collectively, we can help to heal our confusion, frustration, isolation and loneliness as we work together to understand the complex issues around mental illnesses.
The remaining nine sessions offer opportunities for families to be introduced to local resources and support systems. Establishing family connections with people who work within the support system is important to start the dialogue and the process of trust building. Over and over again during the pilot project, we heard from participants that First Nations communities look forward to having this program interpreted in local languages, and having video resources and role plays that respect local cultures.
The bridge between languages is now open; however, we must listen carefully and conduct respectful, open conversations about how to transform medical knowledge into First Nations knowledge without losing the intent of the medical message.
Sechanlayagh! (Thank-you!) For more information about the SFT-FN project, please contact our project coordinator, Cindy Savage, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
Cindy is the (BCSS) Program/Services Manager and lives in Williams Lake, BC. She grew up in a European and Inuit family and has worked in language revitalization in the Tsilhqot’in and Northern Shuswap communities. Along with Elders, the Nations’ knowledge keepers, Cindy has co-developed language camps and teaching tools for adults and children
The promotional video can be viewed on the BCSS website: http://www.bcss.org/resources/topics-by-type/downloads/2015/09/strengthening-families-together-first-nations-promotional-video/