The experience of having a mental illness is often isolating. This isolation occurs for various reasons – whether repeated hospitalization resulting in a person falling further and further off the path they originally set for themselves, debilitating symptoms that make activities of daily living increasingly difficult to accomplish, or the enormity of the experience simply feeling too complex to describe adequately to family and friends. Yet despite their feeling of aloneness, most clients are not actually alone in their experience. Family members — siblings, parents, spouses and children — can and often do share the feelings of confusion, isolation and loss that can accompany an unexpected diagnosis of mental illness.
It is crucial that family members receive the support and education they need, both for their own well-being and for the well-being of their loved one. This support comes in various forms. Most often, it consists of information from health care providers. However, while facts are important for loved ones to understand — symptoms, associated behaviors, useful medications, treatments — facts do not address the feelings of fear, grief and shame that families often experience.
Family members benefit greatly from knowing they aren’t alone as they struggle to understand what their loved one is experiencing. They also need guidance in responding proactively and thoughtfully to a life thrown off-course by mental illness. They need access to professionals who can continue the conversation after a loved one receives a diagnosis and medication and has returned to their life. And they need to be able to talk openly about their experiences with people who understand what they’re going through. Most importantly, they and their loved one need support in learning how to talk to each other and navigate this new life-course together.
One of the first things we do at Ellenhorn upon admission is invite the family and client to meet with our team. This casual meet-and-greet is an opportunity to connect directly, in a non-clinical way, with the people who will be working with the client and family. Gathering over coffee and a light breakfast, or lunch, is the beginning of the creation of a community space and the sense of a shared experience between the team and the family in need of support.
This gathering is often the team’s first opportunity to begin to understand the kind of support the family will find most useful. From receiving weekly updates from the primary clinician to having regular face-to-face Open Dialogue meetings, or participating in structured therapy sessions, families are welcomed into the process of recovery.
Besides the individual supports put in place by a client’s team, there are opportunities throughout the year for families of Ellenhorn clients to meet one another. These meetings promote connections among families previously struggling in isolation to support a loved one. Our Family Weekends provide the combination of clinical education about specific illnesses, personal stories of recovery and the chance to forge relationships with other families that is often needed to break out of the world of isolation and illness into one of connection and recovery.