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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Family Members Need Social Support

The Family Support Buddy Program

Sophia Kelly

Reprinted from the "Social Support" issue of Visions Journal, 2011, 6 (4), p. 21

Family members are sometimes worried their entire family will be judged or discriminated against if people know one of their members has a mental illness. Keeping this concern to themselves can mean that these family members may be cut off from the social support they would otherwise expect when a relative is seriously ill.

Providing support for family members in caring for loved ones with a mental illness has been shown to improve health outcomes for both the family and the ill loved ones. Family support hastens client recovery from mental illness and addiction, lowers the risk of death, reduces reliance on health care services, reduces the rate of rehospitalization and relapse, enhances medication compliance, and improves client interpersonal functioning and family relationships.1

Mental health services may not have a mandate to provide services or referrals to family members. Fortunately, family support groups are offered in many locations around BC. However, the support groups aren’t always a good fit in terms of location, times scheduled or in some other way, such as style of delivery. For instance, men are generally less likely to attend support groups.2 Also, many people prefer to talk one-on-one with someone they know will understand.2 And, family members who have become familiar with mental health services and have been supporting their loved ones effectively for some time may find that support groups that were helpful when they were in crisis no longer meet their needs.

About the Buddy Program

The Family Support Buddy Program was developed in 2005 by the BC Schizophrenia Society (BCSS) with funding through the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addiction Information’s Heretohelp. The Buddy Program was designed to complement existing family support services offered through BCSS. These include the family support groups and individual support and programming provided by regional coordinators.

In 2006, the Buddy Program was piloted for six months in Vancouver, Surrey and Williams Lake. Evaluation showed that both volunteers and clients clearly felt their involvement had provided useful information and had reduced their stress.

The Family Support Buddy program matches peer support volunteers with family members (i.e., relatives, spouses, partners and family of choice) of people with a serious and persistent mental illness. The volunteers, who are also family members of someone with a mental illness, provide one-on-one listening during a scheduled weekly phone call or visit. Each pairing is meant to last for up to eight phone calls or visits.

The program is not meant to replace support groups—it’s meant to provide support to people who are unable to attend a support group or who prefer to speak one-on-one with someone about their situation. Talking to someone who has been through what you are going through can be a big help. Peer support can help people feel hopeful. It can also help them figure out how to look after themselves as well as care for their ill family member or friend.

Buddy Program volunteers are not counsellors, but because they share the experience of supporting a person with a mental illness, they understand the feelings and concerns involved. Buddies may offer also useful information about other programs and services. They are also trained to refer any crisis needs or situations to the program coordinator.

The program also focuses on making the experience a rewarding and useful one for the volunteers. Many of the volunteers have already been providing informal support to other family members within their communities, which can be overwhelming at times. So, we organize monthly social, recognition and check-in events for these “veteran” family members. Volunteers say they appreciate the support, particularly for setting clear boundaries around their time and involvement. Our program puts energy into preventing burnout and preserving these important community assets—our volunteers.

One important difference between a buddy-style program and ‘paraprofessional’ peer support programs, such as those most commonly seen aimed directly at people with a mental illness, is in the level of training and involvement of the volunteers. For the family support buddy program, the training and volunteer time commitment is low. This makes it feasible for family members with full-time jobs or caregiving responsibilities to volunteer. The type of peer support programs that provide more extensive training sometimes do so as part of a path to paid employment in a helping field. The buddy program volunteers are not seen as paraprofessional helpers or counsellors. They provide the same level of support they would provide as peers within a support group.

After the pilot, BCSS Vernon offered the Family Support Buddy Program until early 2009, when funding for this popular program was cut.

You can start a Buddy Program!

The materials to start a family support buddy program at your organization or agency are available for non-profit use, free of charge. The Family Support Buddy Toolkit is designed to provide all the coordination, administration and training tools needed to start and run a family support buddy program. It includes a coordinator’s guide, buddy guide, forms and procedures, and a full set of training handouts and transparencies for overhead projection. The coordinator’s guide provides an overview that gives organizations interested in hosting this program an idea of the funding, staffing and resources they will need to have in place.

About the author
Sophia is Manager of several projects for the BC Schizophrenia Society and a consultant in private practice in areas including project management, health education and online outreach. She designed the Family Support Buddy Program. Sophia can be reached at [email protected].
  1. Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (2004). Putting family-centered care philosophy into practice. Toronto: Author.

  2. Kelly, S., for the BC Schizophrenia Society. (2007). Reaching Families Research Project: A study of best practices in disseminating information to families of persons with mental illness. BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.


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