Peer support group gives families struggling with mental health issues reassurance they are not alone
Two Winnipeg mental health advocates are using their own experiences to help family members and caregivers of those struggling get the support they need.
Charlotte Sytnyk and Kirsten Drybrough met six years ago on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature at a rally in support of mental health. After their initial conversation, they realized they had a lot in common – primarily, they each had a daughter who had struggled with her mental health.
“We had a conversation and, for the first time, I had a connection and I wasn’t alone. Charlotte was going through really similar things back home,” Drybrough said.
Both mothers realized there was a lack of support for families supporting a loved one with mental health issues. After some research and planning, they opened All in Family Peer Support, a non-profit organization that provides peer support, workshops, and education to help family members.
“One of the things you don’t know until you experience it is when one person in the family is struggling with a mental health issue, the whole family struggles. That encompasses the entire family unit,” says Drybrough. “(All in Family Peer Support) focuses on the well-being and mental health of the family and how the family is doing as a whole.”
The organization grew out of their family histories. Ten years ago, Drybrough felt like the only person dealing with what was going on in her family. Her daughter, then 11, was struggling with mental health issues. When Drybrough tried to find help, she didn’t know what services were available or even where to start looking.
“When it came to seeking support, that was probably the scariest time of my life,” she says. “And I was shocked to see what was not available for support, especially for the family.”
Confused, lonely and isolated, Drybrough had no connection to anyone going through the same thing.
“I just couldn’t figure it out. There’s a lot of shame and blame in raising a young person who has mental health issues, until you know better,” she says. “We kind of create a culture of secrecy because I was very afraid of people being judgmental or being harsh on my family, especially my daughter.”
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five people in Canada will experience a mental problem or illness each year. By age 40, approximately 50% of the population will have or have had a mental illness.
Sytnyk says peer support is an important addition to the help offered for mental health issues and addictions.
“Peer support is people with lived experience. We’re not replacing counselors or therapists — it’s just another added piece of your mental health story,” Sytnyk says. “We share our experience and what it’s like to support a family member struggling with mental health and addiction. We don’t tell people what to do. We just share some of the things that have worked and don’t. didn’t work in our family story.”
In 2012, about 38% of Canadians had at least one family member with a mental health problem, according to Statistics Canada. Of these, about 35% said these issues affected their time, energy, emotions, finances, or daily activities.
Sytnyk’s eldest daughter also struggled with mental health issues.
“It really blew up in middle school for my daughter and it was a really, really scary time for our family because she spent so many years not wanting to be here on this planet,” she says.
Sytnyk’s daughter was introduced to peer support through a local organization that gave her the hope that was missing in her life. She also met other people with similar stories.
“I truly believe that peer support is one of the reasons (my daughter) is still here and I will be forever grateful to her,” she says. “But what was missing was a member of my family to support me, as I was just as fractured and struggling.”
It was then that Sytnyk began to reflect on the importance of having a peer support worker working directly with a family and what that would have meant in her situation.
“The families we work with just want to talk with another family who’s been through something similar. We sit down, listen and share,” says Sytnyk. “So it kind of normalizes the world you find yourself in. Whereas so often your friends and family can’t relate and you feel a lot of shame and blame that goes with it.”
At the start of 2020, Liv felt she was at a place with her mental health where she could start helping other people. She was trained as a peer helper and is now giving back. She spends part of her time working at Sara Riel, which provides community support for people with mental health issues.
All in Family Peer Support works with Peer Connections Manitoba (formerly the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society) to provide free support to families. Her Wednesday evening group meets virtually and is open to anyone supporting someone with mental health or addiction issues.
As trained family peer support workers, Sytnyk and Drybrough’s mission is to work with caregivers and parents to support, advocate, and provide strategies for success and recovery.
“Our hope is that families feel empowered and able to be that support for each member of their family while maintaining their own well-being,” Drybrough said. “And that no family will ever have to go through what we’ve been through, feeling so lonely and broken.”
Sabrina Carnevale is a freelance writer and communications specialist, as well as a former journalist and broadcaster with a passion for health. She writes a bi-monthly column focusing on wellness and fitness.
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