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Mental Health

The FORCE Society

Empowering families

Karen Copeland

Reprinted from "Families" issue of Visions Journal, 2013, 8 (3), pp. 28-30

I work for an organization called the FORCE Society for Kids’ Mental Health. FORCE stands for Families Organized for Recognition and Care Equality. It’s a non-profit organization that was co-founded in 2000 under the leadership of Keli Anderson and Donna Murphy. Now, 13 years later, with 36 staff and contractors, the organization has evolved into quite the “force” for child and youth mental health within BC.

The mandate of the FORCE is to support and empower families, and to work collaboratively with health care professionals, toward seeing that the mental health needs of families are met. The FORCE is committed to promoting engagement of families in the systems that service child and youth mental health—the Ministry of Child and Family Development, for example. We believe it’s important for family members to be valued partners in planning for, and services to, their child or youth with mental health challenges.

Parents in Residence

The Parent in Residence (PiR) program and the Youth in Residence (YiR) program were launched in July 2011. The Parent in Residence role has been established in four regions of BC: Vancouver Coastal, Fraser, Vancouver Island and the Interior. The Youth in Residence role has been established at BC Children’s Hospital. We currently have 15 PiRs and two YiRs supporting families and youth across BC. I work as a Parent in Residence in the community of Abbotsford.

You might be asking yourself, “What is a Parent in Residence?” A lot of people do! Simply put, a PiR is a parent who has lived experience with a child or youth with mental health issues, and who acts as a navigator, educator and mentor to assist families to develop respectful and collaborative relationships with professionals.

In my role as PiR, I provide parent peer support. I am not a professional counsellor or a clinician; I am a parent of a beautiful boy who experiences mental health challenges. I draw from my own experiences of navigating the health care systems to try to get the support my son and my family needs and deserves.

First and foremost, I listen to the parent, hear about their journey, and let them know they are not alone. We all know how isolating this journey can be, and many families find new strength knowing that someone out there “gets it.” I can then provide parents with information and knowledge about the systems they are working with: for example, what to expect, some of the limitations of the systems, and good questions to ask.

I also assist parents to prepare for meetings, helping them focus on their main goals and outcomes, and on ways to work toward achieving these outcomes. I believe the more prepared a parent (or youth) is, the better they are able to let the professionals supporting them know what they need.

Often, we are described as advocates, but this is a misnomer. As PiRs, we walk alongside our families, guiding them through the myriad of services and systems. We don’t speak for the families we connect with; we teach and empower them to speak for themselves. We mentor family members to become their own advocates.

The flip side of supporting parents is creating relationships with professional service providers in my community. It’s very important for me to have a good understanding of the services that are available, so that I’m providing accurate information to families about the services they can access in their community.

Good relationships with service providers are also critical to ensure that positive bridging happens between the service system and the family. If the professional or the family doesn’t understand my role as a PiR, this can impact how everybody thinks about each other. I also have to be mindful of how I advocate for my own son within the same service systems. Becoming overly emotional can damage a relationship, not only for our family, but for other families I am supporting.

As a parent, I’ve had many types of experiences with service systems. However, when I feel the professional is really listening and values the knowledge I have about my son, there is a strong feeling of trust that develops. When a professional demonstrates empathy and works with me to find solutions, I feel a strong sense of hope for our son and our family.

FORCE full

The FORCE has had a huge impact on my own life, and by extension, my family. I have learned that celebrating when things are going well is incredibly important. It’s so easy to get caught up in the difficulties—the road blocks that seem to pop up regularly. For instance, our family struggles regularly with school refusal, which causes a lot of anxious moments, tension and sadness. But I savour the days that go well. It’s empowering to take a moment to just breathe, and to bring to mind the good things our journey has created.

I’ve learned about the power of collaboration. Working together with people within systems is not always comfortable, but it can lead to great things if we are mindful of the mutual outcome we are looking to achieve, opening our minds to possibilities. My son is currently transitioning from elementary to middle school. This is a daunting proposition, as it will involve working with new professionals to ensure our son gets the support he needs. At one of the first planning meetings, our elementary school principal started by saying she was interested in where we, our son’s parents, hoped to see him at the age of 22, and what we felt needed to happen to make sure he got there. This broader question set the stage for a great conversation, without judgment about our concerns and worries, and gave the professionals at the table a deeper understanding of our family.

My favourite saying is: “We need to come from a place of curiosity, not a place of judgment or assumption.” I practise this, and try to teach this not only to other families and professionals, but also to my children.

We have two choices when we are facing challenges: we can choose to let the challenge defeat us, or we can choose to embrace the challenge. By embracing the challenge, we explore opportunities and create things that perhaps never existed before. Our best learning comes when we are struggling—although I sometimes wonder what it is that makes us have to struggle so darned much!

And here’s what the power of knowing someone who “gets it” means to me. The knowledge that I am not alone keeps me from slipping into a dark hole where words, behaviours, endless meetings and appointments, and ongoing advocacy can consume a person. Being able to connect with other parents who are on this journey brings me incredible strength and courage to continue on mine. I am so very thankful.

 
About the author
Karen lives in Abbotsford and is the parent of two children, one of whom experiences mental health challenges. Karen works as Parent in Residence for the FORCE Society for Kids’ Mental Health. She hopes to create a difference in how we think and view mental health issues in families and communities

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