On the same path
Peer-support group gives families dealing with mental-health struggles reassurance that they’re not alone
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This article was published 14/02/2022 (473 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Two Winnipeg mental-health advocates are using their own experiences to help family members and caregivers of those who are struggling to receive 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 wasn’t alone. Charlotte was experiencing really similar stuff in her home,” Drybrough says.
The two mothers realized there was a lack of support for families supporting a loved one with mental-health challenges. 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 challenge, the entire family struggles. It encompasses the entire family unit,” Drybrough says. “(All in Family Peer Support) focuses on the family’s wellness and mental health and how the family is doing as a whole.”
The organization was born out of their family stories. A decade ago, Drybrough felt like she was the only person dealing with what was happening in her family. Her then-11-year-old daughter was battling with mental-health concerns. When Drybrough tried to find support, she didn’t know what services were available or even where to start looking.
“When it came to looking for support, it was probably the most frightening time of my life,” she says. “And I was shocked to see what wasn’t available for support, especially for the family.”
Confused, lonely and isolated, Drybrough had no connection to anybody going through the same thing.
“I just couldn’t make sense of it. There’s a lot of shame and blame that happens with parenting a young person that struggles with mental health, until you know better,” she says. “We kind of create a culture of secrecy because I was very fearful that people would be judgmental or hard on my family, especially my daughter.”
One in five people in Canada will experience a mental-health problem or illness every year, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. By age 40, about 50 per cent of the population will have or have had a mental illness.
Sytnyk says peer support is an important addition to the help offered around mental-health issues and addictions.
“Peer support is people with lived experience. We’re not replacing counsellors or therapists — it’s just another added component to your mental-health story,” says Sytnyk. “We share our experience and what it’s like supporting a family member who struggles with mental health and addiction. We’re not telling people what to do. We’re just sharing some of the things that worked and didn’t work in our family story.”
In 2012, about 38 per cent of Canadians had at least one family member with a mental-health issue, according to Statistics Canada. Of those, about 35 per cent reported that these problems had affected their time, energy, emotions, finances or daily activities.
Sytnyk’s eldest daughter also battled mental-health challenges.
“It really kind of blew up in middle school for my daughter and it was a really, really scary time for our family because she spent 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 others with similar stories.
“I really believe that peer support is one of the reasons why (my daughter) is still here and I will forever be grateful for it,” she says. “But what was missing would have been a family member to support me, because I was just as equally fractured and struggling.”
That’s when Sytnyk first started to think about the importance of having a peer support worker working directly with a family and what it would have meant in her situation.
“The families that we work with, they just want to talk with another family who’s been through something similar. We sit, listen and share,” Sytnyk says. “So, it kind of normalizes the world you’re in a little bit. Whereas, so often, your friends and family can’t relate and you feel a lot of shame and blame that goes with it.”
Char Thompson and her daughter, Liv, 21, both attend All In Family Peer Support workshops and have used the organization as a mental-health resource. Liv dealt with severe anxiety and self-harm throughout high school.
“My family-peer-support journey started when my daughter was in high school. I was fortunate that I had benefits for family therapy, but there is something about talking to another person who has travelled the path that you have,” Char says. “(All In Family Peer Support) didn’t tell me what to do; rather, they were beside me as I came to the decisions that were right for our family situation.”
Char stresses the importance of confiding in someone who has been down a similar path.
“These are people who have been there — afraid to answer the phone, sleepless nights, the shame and the heartbreak,” she says. “But they also offer hope because you can see they’ve lived through it. I can’t tell you how enormously reassuring it was to have a compassionate voice beside us as we gained the strength to help our daughter through her mental-health struggles. When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s hard to see a way out.”
At 16, Liv tried professional therapy, but it wasn’t the right fit for her. She wasn’t looking for a diagnosis.
“I just don’t think it was successful for me because I went in there feeling like I was a problem that had to be fixed,” she says. “I remember we went to family therapy and I was thinking, ‘We’re here because of me. I’m the bad apple who needs fixing.’”
What Liv needed was support from someone with a shared experience. At 18, she tried peer support through a friend of her mom’s.
“I found it was immediately helpful and very personal. With therapists, I felt like a client,” she says. “The difference between peer support and genuine therapy is that it’s (a therapist’s) job to give answers and treatment plans. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But, at the time, it wasn’t what I needed.”
In early 2020, Liv felt she was at a place with her mental health where she could start helping other people. She trained to be a peer-support worker and now gives back. She spends some of her time working at Sara Riel, which provides community-based support to people with mental-health challenges.
All in Family Peer Support works with Peer Connections Manitoba (formerly the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society) to offer assistance for families at no cost. Its Wednesday evening group meets virtually and is open to anyone who’s 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 are able to be that supporter for their individual family member while maintaining their own wellness,” Drybrough says. “And that no family ever has to go through what we went through, feeling so alone and broken.”
Sabrina Carnevale is a freelance writer and communications specialist, and former reporter and broadcaster who is a health enthusiast. She writes a twice-monthly column focusing on wellness and fitness.