This is the million-dollar question. One that elicits many strong responses and opinions from every quarter: survivors, families, providers, researchers.
It is important to acknowledge, at the outset, that there are those who don’t even bother to ask the question. Perhaps for lack of resources (why bother?) or false or narrow beliefs about the causes of mental health challenges.
If we believe that emotional problems are primarily disorders of the brain, then perhaps taking a “fill-in-the-blank” medical history is sufficient.
However, if we believe that emotional crises and dis-ease are problems that exist between people, in our sticky or not-so-sticky web of relationships, then whether families, survivors and those in crisis can heal together is a much more relevant, if still complicated, question.
Perhaps the most honest answer to this question is: “It depends…”
It depends on a willingness to enter into dialogue; a ability to suspend judgment, to be open and curious; an attitude of mutual respect; a safe environment where every voice can be heard and held with reverence; and, perhaps, the alignment of the stars just so.
In fact, research has shown that family psychosocial education and support has the potential to dramatically improve recovery outcomes, decreasing relapse and rehospitalization rates by up to 75%.1
But easily accessible recovery-based family education is in very short supply. And by “recovery-based,” we mean family mental health education that focuses on hope, strengths, empowerment, empathy, possibilities, compassionate communication, respect, mutual aid, personal responsibility, choice — all the things that are vital for individual recovery, transformation and growth. We know these attitudes, skills and approaches transform lives.
The challenge has been how to share these recovery principles with more families (who seem to be the last to know that mental health recovery is possible).
Last fall, Mother Bear: Families for Mental Health, along with our program partners Family Outreach and Response and PracticeRecovery.com, embarked on a grand experiment to provide mental health recovery education for families everywhere using web-based technology.
By everywhere, we do mean everywhere and anywhere there is access to an Internet connection and/or smart phone reception.
By family, we mean the human family. Which includes family members and individuals with lived experience from a variety of vantage points —those in recovery, psychiatric survivors, friends and allies, care providers, community members, educators. Anyone willing to create and support family healing communities based hope, strengths, mutuality, respect, curiosity, and a diversity of perspectives; anyone willing to commit to working on his or her own personal growth.
Sounds good in theory, right?
Except for some long-standing and deep divides between the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movements, family mental health organizations, and mental health care providers. Not to mention the perfectly valid argument that it is not always safe to heal with your family of origin. Sometimes that healing is best done at a distance. A great distance.
Honestly, What Were we Thinking?
“Emotional distress is held in relationships.”
“Nothing about us without us.”
“That Open Dialogue approach sounds mighty good.”
And many other less-polished but equally compelling thoughts.
Truth be told, we were as nervous as we were convinced of the merits of our more inclusive and trialogical family education approach. There were many unknowns.
Could we transcend not only geographical but also cultural and language barriers? Could we create an intimate and safe online community? Could families and survivors and providers fumble alongside each other with enough compassion to allow and forgive mistakes as we all learn new and healthier ways to relate to and support ourselves and each other?
We are grateful for everyone who has joined us on this new and exciting recovery journey. It has been an amazing ride so far.
To date, our 8-week facilitated online classes have included participants from 22 United States, 8 countries and 3 continents. One family member from Poland used Google translator to participate in class discussions. Class participants have included family members, those in recovery, survivors, peer workers, and service providers. Our class facilitator and family recovery coach gracefully incorporates her experience with pretty much all of these categories (another source of inspiration).
Participants have joined us from different places on the mental health and recovery continuum. While our last class was in session, families had relatives in the hospital, living at home, in college, and living and working independently. We’ve had participants who identify themselves as in recovery, fully recovered and/or psychiatric survivors—a number also worked as mental health care providers. We’ve even bridged the age gap with participants in their early 20s up to their mid 70s.
Together, we have explored the mental health continuum (and our constantly shifting places on it), the importance of hope, how to create healthy boundaries, empowering language and attitudes, compassionate communication skills, dark emotions and techniques for working with them, the meaning(s) hidden in psychoses, identifying strengths in ourselves and in our relatives, and recognizing and addressing our own emotional needs and feelings.
We have not learned how to diagnose each other or discussed the merits of various medical or pharmaceutical interventions.
Our focus, instead, is on the healing that can happen in the “in between” spaces. Those healing places that exist between our fears and our hopes, our current realities and future possibilities, between this moment and the next, and between each other in all of our relationships. This has proven to be very fertile ground for family healing and personal growth. More than enough to fill a lifetime, much less an 8-week online course.
Can Families and Survivors Heal Together?
We believe the answer is yes. And that there is room and value in opening the dialogue as widely as possible to create healing communities with diverse perspectives and numerous opportunities for support —freely chosen, respectfully offered and with the highest expectations for well-being.
We’d love to hear what you believe.
For more information please go to Families Healing Together.