How can families cope with mental illness?

Upcoming course offers support for parents, siblings, partners and friends

Whether you are the person coping with it or a family member, mental illness can be tough.
In 2008, Michelle McEwen’s brother, who is 43, was diagnosed with drug-induced psychosis which had either schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder attached to it, she said.

Family gatherings are stressful for everyone, she said, because of her brother’s sometimes odd behaviour. “Under a lot of stress, he is sort of more aggressive in a way, but he sees and hears things,” she said, adding her brother is high functioning, able to hold down a job and has a place of his own.

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An upcoming free course in Squamish aims to help parents, siblings, partners and friends of those with mental illness in the Sea to Sky corridor.

Mental illness impacts the entire community, according to Brittany Beggs of the North Shore Schizophrenia Society, which is offering the course.

“This includes local businesses, RCMP, Squamish General Hospital and medical clinics, mental health services and the local housing crisis,” she said. “Through community education, mental illness is humanized, seen through the lens of compassion and appreciation, and recognized as an illness, neither a behaviour nor a product of family dysfunction.”

The Family-to-Family Education course, open to anyone in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton, starts Feb. 4 with evening sessions held once a week for 12 weeks.

The sessions are led by trained family members of people with mental illness and cover everything from symptoms and medications to coping with crisis and avoiding caregiver burnout, according to the society.

McEwen and her mother previously took the course, and it helped them develop tools to handle her brother’s struggles in a healthier way. “It helped out a lot,” she said. “It gave me the empathy to understand a bit better, because… sometimes it is hard to differentiate the mental illness from the personality. But it has definitely given me a better understanding and also the tools to be a bit more supportive for my mom, who has to deal with the brunt of it when he has an episode.”

McEwen acknowledged family get-togethers are still stressful, but she and her mother are able to better weather them by remembering not to take her brother’s actions and behaviour personally.

Despite more resources being available than in previous generations, McEwen said stigma about mental illness still exists.

“We’re still afraid to talk about it, out of shame or embarrassment. I am of the mindset that the more we talk about it, the better this is going to get,” she said.

Through the course McEwen also came to recognize that her roommate at the time was suffering with severe anxiety.

“What this course actually allowed me to realize is that there’s mental illness on a lot of different levels,” she said.

For more information on the course, call 604-926-0856 or go to  northshoreschizophrenia.org.

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