FamilySmart* for Child and Youth Mental Health

I had the extreme pleasure of attending a two-day conference this weekend called ‘Today’s Children and Youth, Tomorrow’s Families: 2014 Youth and Family Consensus Conference.’  I just arrived home safely and I am writing this blog with pure enthusiasm and excitement as I am moved, touched, and inspired.

FamilySmart – A Philosophy and Practice with Impact

I learned that FamilySmart is a values-based approach to listening, understanding, and responding to the mental health needs of children, youth, and families.  The Institute for Families is the brainchild behind the enlightening philosophy and practice.  It is intended to help families connect with communities across systems to identify and act upon what works and is meaningful to improve child and youth mental health.  The conference was intentionally created to further define and refine the meaning of FamilySmart.  The point of the conference was to create consensus statements and compile them into a report.

The conference as a whole was extremely participatory and all attendees were encouraged to share their personal stories in light of the child and youth mental health theme.  During various workshops I listened to a range of participants: mothers shared their struggles with the mental health system, a number of fathers were frustrated with feeling helpless, and I admired the bravery of two youth, Lucas Mattiello and Brent Seal, who voiced their feelings of empowerment while having had gone very public with their own lived experience.

Youth Jamming AKA Youth Engagement

The conference did an excellent job of engaging and including youth on their agenda for the weekend.  It was the first example I have ever seen of youth taking such a lead role at a conference full of adults and the results were both effective and also entertaining.  Lucas and Brent made me laugh numerous times during their presentation with their light demeanor and humorous commentary.  It was refreshing.

The conference organizers urged people to write down questions on large boards in the hotel hallways for youth, and I posed a question that lies heavily on my mind especially with the upcoming commencement of the Bipolar Youth Action Project.  I posed the question: What coping strategies do you practice in regards to wellness?  I was thrilled when the youth shared my question in large bold letters on the PowerPoint slide and their answer included a number of items such as having meaningful employment and volunteer activities, engaging friends, parents, siblings, working ‘with’ their psychiatric teams/families to having amazing role models.  They focused on the mantra For youth – By youth, which by no means is meant to be exclusionary to family/community support, but simply echoes that youth must be leaders in establishing their own mental health wellness plan.

Themes and Nuggets from the Conversations

The term nugget quickly became the name for the outcome, take-away or main theme that was the result of conversations from around the tables.  Nuggets included an array of findings and some were the following:

  • the importance of mental health language,
  • the comparison of the treatment of physical illnesses in the system to that of a mental health crises,
  • the need for creating a space for meaningful dialogue, having families directly in the mental health system,
  • establishing and considering the needs of all family members,
  • questioning the definition of family, and
  • the need for support during all types of transitions in a youth’s life.

The Institute has committed to drafting a final report to be launched May 7, 2014, which is Child and Youth Mental Health Day.  Just as treatment and support are urgent for a youth posing with a mental health challenge, so are the results needed from the conference.

A FamilySmart Bipolar Babe

During my own mental health crisis – diagnosis with bipolar disorder and attempted suicide, I was wholly on my own in my younger years during this trauma.  My parents love me but they did not live in the same city as I did and were unable to truly be there for me in any real emotional or physical sense.  In the past, I was so privy to dealing with all of my mental health issues on my own because I didn’t know there was any other way.  I am in awe of the people that I met this weekend because they are weaving support systems, enacting connectedness, and really they just CARE immensely.  I now know I am one of them. Mental health challenges are not meant to be spearheaded by oneself, instead we must include all facets of the community at large, including our medical and educational professionals, peers, siblings, parents, other youth, friends, and so much more.

FamilySmart is not just about how families can help their youth with their mental health challenges, but we are ALL a family and together we can make a meaningful and profound impact in the lives of youth struggling with their mental health.

The Bipolar Youth Action Project – Pilot Summary

Yesterday, five youth and I took to the XrayLima Co. boardroom in Victoria, BC, sat around a table and dialed in psychologist and researcher Erin Michalak from CREST.BD.  There were several questions that Erin and I had for the group and as we design  our ‘Bipolar Youth Action Project’. It proved invaluable to partake in conversations with youth with bipolar disorder.  We began with exploring how they stay well in the first place.  There were an array of strategies described – two big topics of discussion were exercise and meaningful engagement in activities.  A variety of kinds of exercise were described, from riding a bike through downtown Victoria or strolling around Thetis Lake.  The youth we spoke to also engaged in a diverse array of activities: work, challenging studies, or doing anything constructive to help maintain positivity  and balance. 

Laughs were shared and the creative juices started boiling when asked “how should we communicate all of this important information on staying well with other youth with bipolar disorder?”  The group had some great ideas around social media. Facebook of course is popular and powerful, and was seen as a great way to get out the word that ‘youth ought to be talking about their mental health.’  The group explored the possibility of communicating this same message through various channels, such as a school assembly presentation or YouTube Video.  Imagine being able to showcase bipolar disorder by getting a glimpse of the life of someone who actually lives and breathes the illness and envision sharing the thoughts and words of the people who know it well.

The group had some very strong opinions on the importance of doing such a project, which they thought could be empowering and helpful to their own wellness, while at the same time providing education to others.  Getting together on a Sunday afternoon a few days before school starts really made this group’s dedication apparent and the session proved to be fruitful and rewarding.  The youth even recognized that while such work could prove stressful, with the right supports (including our great research team), they were confident they would be successful in their endeavours.  I have never been touched by such enthusiasm and passion; we hope that others will also see the potential this research has for making an immense and long-lasting impact.  

Comments from Youth:

"The first meeting of the project made me feel quite optimistic about what us, as youth with bipolar disorder are able to accomplish in reaching out to our peers and furthering the elimination of mental health stigma in our society." Lara 21. 

"I feel that the session held the other day was a prime example of how youth of a very diverse group can come together. We talked about how we could get such an important subject of our lives into the hearts of others. I'm very proud to be one if the leaders of this research team."  Steven, 22.

"I learned a lot about how other people deal with bipolar and it made me feel less alone, I really liked exploring the idea of using social media as a way of raising awareness." Christine, 16.

 "Yesterday's research group was an eye opener to the fact that we are not alone. We brainstormed ideas on how to keep happy, and safe and it brought us all together with the common desire of wanting to live a long happy life, regardless of our mental illness."  Sascha, 16.

"Although I was quieter than the rest of the group I felt excited about the possibilities that this project could offer.  I could help myself tremendously and most of all enrich the lives of others." Jennifer, 20.


For a more in-depth summary of findings visit the following link

Pictures used with permission of participants.  Real names of participants were not used for this blog.