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Strengthening Families and Youth Voices

Building bridges

Melissa Bax

Reprinted from "Treatment for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (1), p. 32

The Strengthening Families and Youth Voices (SFYV) project is an exciting two-year initiative in our community, hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association for the Kootenays. Cranbrook is one of five sites across the province1 that has spent the past year networking and supporting parents and youth who have been, or are currently, involved with formal mental health services. The overall goal of our project is to increase the voice of parents and youth in their treatment and support planning. More importantly, the project’s intent is to bring parents and youth together in groups to provide peer support.

We are into the second year of the project and I am happy to announce that we have successfully built support networks within a parent group and a youth group. This wouldn’t have been possible without tremendous dedication by members of both groups— and, in particular, Liza, who is a parent of a child with a mental illness.

Liza has an unbelievable passion for the area of mental health. From the moment she first became involved with the project, Liza believed that the parents of our community needed a support group. Entirely on her own, she developed and promoted the Supporting Parents of Challenging Kids (SPOCK) group. Every two to three weeks, Liza, along with her husband Kevin, provide a safe place for these parents to come together to talk about their parenting successes and struggles. In June, Liza reported that approximately 11 parents regularly attend the meetings; three of them are male.

SPOCK has seen some amazing outcomes. At our last parent focus meeting, Liza noted: “Couples and caregivers used to fight about their parenting styles; now they talk about it. And they are parenting differently because of the opportunity to have a place where it is safe to talk about the struggles and challenges.”

Leslie, who is also a member of our parent focus group and a regular attendee at SPOCK, made the following comment: “Just to know that I can pick up the phone and talk about how I am feeling, and to know that Liza or other parents understand what I’m going through is unbelievably reassuring.”

Our project would not be complete without talking about the amazing work that our youth group has done in the last year. Every week, four to five or more youth get together at a local coffee shop to support each other and talk about mental illness issues. These youth have promoted themselves by developing a brochure. They have ideas about putting together an “art-fest,” which would display some of their very personal artwork, poetry and other artistic work that expresses their struggles and successes in dealing with mental health issues.

The youth who attend the group would have not come together if it hadn’t been for the hard work of outreach workers and project assistants Julie Luhowy and Amber Cuthill. Julie and Amber meet regularly with the youth to support them in various aspects of their lives that are beyond the scope of the project. They also assist in achieving the youth group’s goals and objectives. Our youth have worked through issues of bullying, stereotyping, stigmatization, rejection and isolation. They have found common ground in talking about their issues in a youth-friendly, safe environment.

This project started with the intent to build bridges between professional mental health resources and parents, youth and community. I believe we will attain our goal of parents and youth having more input into their treatment decisions. The dedicated work of all the people involved has made this project special. Because of the commonality of the parents’ and youths’ stories, the friendships, relationships and peer support networks that have developed will continue to grow long after my rewarding work as project coordinator ends in March of 2007.

About the Author

Melissa is Youth Programs and Public Education Coordinator, as well as the local Strengthening Families and Youth Voices Project Coordinator, for Canadian Mental Health Association for the Kootenays, in Cranbrook

  1. The other four SFYV pilot sites and host agencies are: Canadian Mental Health Association, North and West Vancouver branch, in the lower mainland; Kitimat Child Development Centre in northern BC; Canadian Mental Health Association, Cowichan Valley branch, in Duncan on Vancouver Island; and Maple Ridge/ Pitt Meadows Community Services Society in the Fraser Valley.

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