Building skills for life and parenthood
Reprinted from "Parenting" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2 (2), p. 37
Anxiety about your child’s safety is common for any parent, but what do you do when anxiety stems from concerns about the impact that your own mental health might be having on your child? Or from fear that others might see you as an unfit parent? Parenting, or preparing to become a parent, can be doubly stressful for people with schizophrenia. The Women’s Clinic for Schizophrenia, operated by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario, was designed to help ease that stress, as well as address other concerns particular to women with schizophrenia.
Established in 1995, the Women’s Clinic for Schizophrenia is a program that attends, as its name suggests, to the specific needs of women with schizophrenia. Keeping families together is one of the main goals of the clinic, a goal achieved through a focus on helping women gain access to the tools necessary to build themselves happier, healthier households.
These tools include information on controlling symptoms; information on women’s issues and mothering issues; and follow-up treatments through therapy groups, parenting groups, psychotherapy and psychopharmacology (the study of drugs that affect the mind). Staffed with psychiatrists, nurses, a social worker and various students and trainees, the clinic also provides clients with connections to community support groups, health professionals and other information and resources to help maximize their financial and emotional support base, as well as the physical and mental health of them selves and their families.
In many ways, the services and information offered at the clinic are not unlike those offered at most other women’s clinics; however, most clinics do not welcome women with schizophrenia because they can be incorrectly perceived as disturbed and potentially violent. On the other hand, many schizophrenia rehabilitation clinics are not necessarily equipped to deal specifically with women’s issues, and can be intimidating for women who are not comfortable sharing facilities with men with schizophrenia.
As a result, women with schizophrenia are often left in a gap between services. The Women’s Clinic effectively fills this gap by providing a place where such women can turn for help in a community and environment in which they feel safe and supported.
Specific issues and questions that are commonly addressed at the clinic include: concerns about the effects of medications on expectant mothers and their babies, fluctuations in symptoms over the menstrual month and with menopause, and the worsening of illness symptoms with age (which) is common in women with schizophrenia). In some cases, the women are referred to the clinic from child protective services and other child welfare agencies for help with issues related to parenting capacity and custody disputes.
In the case of children who have been separated from their mothers by child protective services, the support of the parenting group can be quite useful in helping parents understand why their child has been taken away, and what they need to do to see their child’s return. “Support is really key,” emphasizes Dr. Mary Seeman, founder of the Women's Clinic. “If they have family support and follow through with treatment, the chances of regaining custody of their child are good,” she says, adding that the child’s age and degree of success with their foster family are also factors.
A constant challenge to reaching women in need of assistance is the reluctance of parents and women desiring to be parents to disclose their illness and to attend the Women’s Clinic. Many mothers with schizophrenia fear that disclosing their illness will cause others to view them as unfit mothers, and their children will be taken away. Unfortunately, this often prevents them from getting the help they need until it is too late, and they must come to the clinic for help in regaining custody of their children.
Hoping to break this cycle, the clinic’s most recent approach involves focusing on engaging women in their parenting program who are pregnant or seriously considering having a child, to avoid having to intervene once family services has already separated the child from the mother.
In all cases, the clinic emphasizes the benefits of building relationships between their clients and their support figures, whether it be their families of origin, the father of their child, close friends or support groups. Often, housing, income and cultural issues need to be taken into consideration, as they too can impact the health, safety and fair treatment of the clients.
According to Dr. Seeman, the most rewarding part of operating the clinic is seeing the results: watching the women grow and succeed in life by gaining a better understanding of their illness and how to manage their symptoms, building wider social networks and better relationships, gaining access to better housing, and engaging in more meaningful leisure-time activities. The main goals of the clinic – reducing symptoms and reuniting families – are achieved in most cases.
Some more notable success stories include clients who have gone on to complete university education, clients who have found full-time employment, and clients who have regained custody of their children after they were taken out of their care by child protection services. “It’s wonderful when you are able to reunite babies with their mothers,” remarks Seeman, “They are often very good mothers.”
About the Author
Jennifer is a Communications Co-op Student at the Canadian Mental Healt Association (CMHA) BC Division
Written with the assistance of Mary V. Seeman, MD, founder of the Women's Clinic for Schizophrenia at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, and David Clodman, MSW RSW, a social worker at CAMH