I spent my weekend at Pathways to Hope, an interfaith and mental health collaboration to raise awareness, offer support, and combine resources in our community. Standing in the hallway greeting various colleagues and visitors, a familiar face appeared in front of me. She beamed at me. Her hand grabbed mine. A mother of a young man with mental illness, someone I had treated in years past, leaned in and warmly said, “I just want to thank you.”
For this family, I don’t think I worked any miracles. I didn’t cure her son of his illness. In fact, I didn’t feel I had done enough to help her son. So for a moment, I was confused. Why was she thanking me? I must have said something to indicate that I felt undeserving of her appreciation, because she then said, “Thank you for letting us be part of his care. Thank you for talking to us, and involving us, for educating us and allowing us to be on the team.”
I brushed off her praise, and said, “That’s just what we do.”
A voice beside me, a colleague, jumped in. “No, it’s not. Too many psychiatrists and therapists refuse to talk to families these days, and that’s terrible for our patients.”
I knew she was right.
The list of reasons our mental health care system is failing people is long, but shutting families out of the treatment is a biggie on that list.
Some professionals cite HIPAA (privacy laws). Some look upon families with suspicion, assuming that they bear responsibility for the illness in some way. And while some families have been part of the problem in the past, why aren’t we teaching them to become part of the solution now?
Families tell us what goes on at home from another perspective. A patient may say, “This medication doesn’t do anything,” and his family members may say, “We see big changes in him. Maybe he doesn’t see it, but from over here it’s profound.”
Families gather resources, solve problems, and make sure the plan at home is working. They tell us when our patients are suspicious of the neighbors, and when their sleep schedules shift to staying awake all night and sleeping all day. They set up pillboxes and offer reminders. They drive to appointments, and pick up prescriptions from pharmacies.
Families make changes in themselves that aid in recovery. They educate themselves, and they learn to manage their own reactions to mental health symptoms. They model self-care, openness, and growth.
It would be arrogant to believe that we could cure mental illness by spending a few minutes or hours talking in an office. We have to put families back on the team. We have to train them as allies, and work together to change the culture of shutting supportive people out of treatment. They’re showing up, trying to help, and we should let them.
More info coming soon!