Response to Questions from Julie A. Fast to Mara Briere, MA CFLE
What led you to start Grow a Strong Family? In other words, what is your personal experience around mental health disorders?
I am a master’s level Certified Family Life Educator with lived experience as a caretaker of family members with serious mental illnesses/brain disorders. My entire career has been devoted to working with individuals impacted by mental illness/brain disorders including those carrying the diagnosis, significant others, families, and caregivers.
I grew up in a two-family house with my grandparents. My grandmother suffered from manic depression and was often hospitalized at Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, NY. I was close with my grandmother and watching her swing from mania to crippling depression was heartbreaking. My grandfather could not deal with my grandmother when she was like this, so he drank until he stopped (in 1954) and then he became very active in the new program of recovery, AA. This left my mother and my sister and I to take care of grandma(beginning in 1964). We would return from school, check on grandma, and call our mom. When grandma was actively suicidal, we would call mom and she would be home in time to meet the ambulance. This family life experience shaped me professionally to work in community clubhouse programs with chronic and homeless persons with serious mental illnesses/brain disorders. I was a therapeutic recreation specialist. Fast forward, my career expanded and included substance abuse counseling, home visiting, and finally, family life education teaching and coaching.
In addition to my grandmother, I have several family members with bipolar including my father, my sister, my aunt on my mother’s side, my stepfather, and my daughter’s biological father.
My daughter’s first major episode of bipolar one occurred when she was 25. She was triggered by an infection and had the blessing of genetic material from both sides of her biological family. I sought a family systems therapist to guide me through the impact on our family. He said, “After you’ve taken the NAMI Family to Family program, there is nothing more I can help with. You already do everything I could suggest.” Several other clinicians told me the same thing. I formed Grow a Strong Family as a charitable non-profit so that I could work with a Board, apply for grants, and develop the resources other caregivers and families need and are not able to acquire because we are an underserved population, barely recognized by the professionals who work with our adult loved ones.
Since in-home therapy was essentially family life coaching, I developed a program for Grow a Strong Family that would encompass the coaching model. Other programs developed based on Julie Tallard Johnson’s groundbreaking resource, “Hidden Victims, Hidden Lives: An eight-stage healing process for the family and friends of the mentally ill,” and Nancy Pizzo Boucher’s wonderful workbook, “Replanting Lives Uprooted by Mental Illness: For Family Members.” With their permission, I incorporated their ideas into a caregiver support program with a monthly group for connection(Replanting Lives), as well as a “train the trainer” program. The trainer program has been approved by the National Council on Family Relations for CEUs.
What is the main struggle you see with families in 2021- coming out of 2020? Where would you direct them on your page?
The coaching program has expanded since the pandemic hit. Families are in proximity for extended periods of time. This seems to create a greater need for managing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and psychotic behavior. My aim is to offer communication strategies, safety, education around symptom management, and coaching on self-care. The isolation creates its own issues as internal dialogs receive more airtime than when in social environments. I coach participants on changing the inner dialog, catching themselves and exchanging the language for positive terms. For example, instead of, “I made another mistake! I can’t believe I did that!” I remind, “Another learning opportunity! Refining my skills.” The pandemic has created a zoom protocol that is especially beneficial to families in need. Our coaching service expects between-session contact and encourages connection during times of crisis for guidance and additional support. Our price menu includes options for single sessions and packages of 4 or 6 sessions within a 60-day period.
Grow a Strong Family supports caregivers and other family members impacted by the serious mental illness/brain disorder of a loved one. The comprehensive multimedia website offers a great many programs that can be accessed by a click. Other than the fee-for-service coaching program, the courses, and the shop, everything is complimentary. Our funding sources are primarily through donations, grants, and the coaching. New materials are added regularly. There is a monthly newsletter, a blog updated several times a month, an open and a closed Facebook page, and a weekly support group for caregivers. Referrals and collaboration with other professionals are an integral component of family life education and Grow a Strong Family regularly engages with others. Grow a Strong Family is based on the strong belief that no one should live in isolation, especially caregivers and families impacted by others with mental illnesses/brain disorders.
I think that our very existence is a major contribution to the mental health world because we offer comprehensive support, strategies, skills, education, and opportunities to “replant” and “rebuild” without damaging the family system. https://growastrongfamily.org/about/
What has been the biggest impact your group has had on the mental health world in your opinion? What are your goals for 2021?
Some of our accomplishments in 2020:
We have been creating products for consumers to purchase in support of either the programs to facilitate, families to use for discussion or prompts, and general inspiration. We have also developed three games to support our programming including two board games and a go fish like card game. https://growastrongfamily.org/shop/
Our goals for 2021:
Develop and implement community based therapeutic recreational activities in support of the Rebuilding Our Lives Program, a weekly support group. https://growastrongfamily.org/replanting-lives-2/3576-2/
Mentor Family Life Educators.
Sell pdf files of products designed for supporting caregivers like the cards and games.
Engage in marketing and outreach activities so that more people are connected to the comprehensive multimedia platform of Grow a Strong Family.
I found Replanting Lives Support Group one day as I was checking in my child for their appointment at a local mental health clinic. The flier immediately caught my eye as my family was in the middle of a crisis that was slowly sucking us under. The concept of receiving support myself was so secondary to my priorities at the time, that as soon as I saw there was a group meeting once a month to undergird families with a mental health crisis, I cleared my calendar and eagerly counted the days until I could go. Immediately, that first time, there was an ease of slipping into the room and finding “my people.” I felt instantly comfortable upon hearing the conversation and the care taken to support the care takers so that we could return home to our turned-upside-down worlds and stay afloat.
The other members sharing their lives were clearly engaged, and Mara, the director, set up the meeting so that families could feel safe and cared for. Beyond the expertise that Mara offered, much could be learned from the forum of shared experiences. One day we worked on self-care and exchanged ideas. Another time we focused on boundary-setting and proper set-up for future crises and/or hospitalizations. We come from different seasons of life with everything from teenagers to adult children, but the common ground was easy to find because of Mara’s ability to identify the struggles and speak actionable support into them. Also, every meeting is set up to be respectful and safe for sharing, and to allow each person a voice. I have had nothing but a positive experience because of Mara’s intentional and professional facilitation skills. Replanting Lives Support Group has become a vital part of my routine in receiving education and perspective to strengthen my ability to take care of my loved one at home.
Bonnie S. Westford MA
Great supportive group for families who are coping with their loved ones who are suffering through the challenges of mental illness.
Monica S. Chelmsford, MA
Mara Briere, shines light, warmth and wisdom for family members dealing with their loved one’s mental illness. No reason to suffer in silence reach out to GrowAStrongFamily.org and receive a guiding hand. You owe it to you self to find peace in the chaos!
Laura B. Carlisle MA
Forward to the Replanting Lives Facilitator Guide, https://smile.amazon.com/Facilitator-Replanting-Support-Family-Strategies/dp/1096012928/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=replanting+lives+facilitator+guide&qid=1613753740&sr=8-1
Often there are people in different places in the world who come up with similar ideas – such was the first common thread that brought Mara and me to meet. She is a family life educator and the founder of a nonprofit organization called Grow a Strong Family. Her organization provides education and support to families coping with a loved one with a mental illness. I am a mother, an advocate, and the author of a book called Replanting Lives Uprooted by Mental Illness, a practical guide for families. Mara invited me to be a guest speaker at her organization’s annual meeting. It was immediately evident that we shared a similar attitude that new growth and learning is always possible- even in the bleakest of times.
In her latest work- Facilitators Guide to Replanting Lives Support Groups- Mara is passing along a blueprint that can readily be implemented by other organizations. Clearly set out in her work is the belief that there is no single right path forward for all families and their loved ones.
If you are involved in supporting families whose lives have been uprooted by mental illness, you can help change their lives for the better by using the Facilitators Guide and Replanting Lives Support Group curriculum developed by Mara Briere. There are 14 specific modules in the guide- each like a seed that when planted and nourished with education and care can sprout new growth.
Nancy Pizzo Boucher
Advocate and Author
Replanting Lives Uprooted by Mental Illness, a practical guide for families.
Defusing the Mental Illness Crisis Triangle, Safety Procedures for Families to Follow During Crises at Home