We had the opportunity to connect with a blogger who has a great deal of wisdom and insights (The Bipolar Manifesto http://www.yourbipolarfriend.com/index.php/general/effectively-managing-a-bipolar-relationship/ ). In the course of our discussion, GASF (the Founder) answered some very thoughtful questions about us. Here is a partial transcript:
Our model of operation in all programs is that mental illness is a chronic illness and can be managed effectively. It is “typical” whether or not people talk about it. WE not only talk about it, we actively look to promote recovery for the whole family and maintenance so that acute episodes can be taken in stride and the chronic nature of mental illness accepted and managed.
What drew me to creating this organization was when my adult child was diagnosed with a mental illness and there were no services available for us as a family. I had been an in-home therapist with families with children with behavioral issues and I worked for an agency that provided general services for the parents and friends so that they could network, find support, and improve their family systems. I had an idea that the model would extend to services for adults. “Nay, nay.” Being a fee-for-service clinician with a lot of professional and personal experience, I was appalled and sought to right this wrong. So, I brought my considerable experience to the forefront and after several different attempts to get something going, founded Grow A Strong Family.
One questions that often comes up is, “Are your programs evidence-based?” They are evidence-informed. The only evidence-based referral I make is to NAMI’s Family-to-family program since I think it is an excellent introduction into this new world. Otherwise, there is not anything “out there” that is specific to this population. Integrating evidence-based and evidence-informed material from other sources (like the substance abuse and education fields), I bring it out in ways that enable our population to grow.
“Parent 1 and Parent 2 have a mentally ill child (when I say child, assume any age including adult). Parent 1 insists on an approach with boundaries, almost teetering totally into tough-love but not necessarily. Parent 2 insists on compassion to the point of enabling, often stemming from guilt and fear of being a bad parent or failing their child”. GASF response to this scenario: In typically developing families, parents often have different parenting styles. So, why not when a child is atypically developing due to a mental illness? Our underlying philosophy is that each parent is entitled to have a relationship with the child(ren) independent of the other parent so long as there is no abuse. They do not have to like or agree with the other’s way of handling things however they may not undermine or otherwise negate the other parent’s contribution to the growth and development of the child. They do need to have an agreement about safety, however. A general rule of thumb is that whichever parent is more bothered by a behavior gets to deal with the behavior. When both parents must come to a place of agreement, such as whether an adult child moves back home, they come up with a plan that works for them before extending the invitation to the child.
In situation 2, ” Compassionate, loving parent is being manipulated and gamed by mentally ill child. Parent is unable to separate the difference between an acute bout of unwellness and someone who is toxic and potentially destructive to their life and health.” Our role as family life education coaches is to offer alternative views of the behaviors that the parent is experiencing. We ask more questions than make statements so that they can determine for themselves that the behavior is toxic. We have many resources that we offer these parents including the powerful module from the “Replanting lives” workbook on “Finding the person in the illness.” This brings the parent in touch with the best of their child and they can then note (for themselves) how their child has changed and the cost to them as a parent of acting in ways that are self-destructive and unhelpful to their child. There are also rich discussions of the difficulty of identifying symptom from personality/behavior and we help them tease that out through offering developmental and mental health information. Again, our approach is to bring the parent to an aha moment so that they can make informed decisions about how they want to move forward vis a vis their child.
” Does your material and services require participation by both family and the mentally ill person together? Can it quietly benefit a person who is basically trying to survive a destructive mentally ill loved one?” Our materials and services are designed for the family members so participation by the family is necessary. If they want to include their loved one with mental illness, they are welcome to do so, however it would be as part of a private coaching session. The presentations are not designed for the sensibilities of the individuals with mental illnesses so much as the focus is on the family as a whole and its needs in particular. Our model is designed to encourage positive outcomes so whomever participates brings their acquired knowledge and skills to the family system. In that way, there is both active and passive changes. As in 12 step programs, even if only one member of the family participates and makes changes, the whole family becomes impacted by that. Same thing here. Very often, we get one family member at presentations and they report that they share what they are learning with their families. In coaching, we are likely to get the primary caretaker and if there is a spouse or significant other, they attend also. Our services are available to the whole family, however, and we are open to problem-solve accordingly.
Grow a Strong Family is about building resilience in families that have been sideswiped by a difficult family illness that won’t typically resolve itself with previous strategies. They can grow and become strong, however, and a healthy model for all of their family members, including their loved one with mental illness. When there is a recovery model, everyone benefits.
“Do you feel it is ever appropriate for a person to eject a mentally ill person from their life for good? Family member or not?” On the surface, no. We are not in favor of shunning any family member, especially when they are mentally ill. We can see where there are times when a limit must be set for safety purposes and that may look like ejection. However, all individuals have choices, even individuals with serious mental illness. In our experience, more family members are rejected by their loved ones with mental illness than the other way around. We can’t even begin to count how many parents are estranged from their adult children with mental illness because they set down safety limits and their children did not want to agree to them. These parents mourn for the loss of their child and the loss of their opportunity to participate in their child’s recovery. Of course, their children do not necessarily want to participate in their own recovery, never mind with familial support.