New support group offers families a place to turn

North Shore Schizophrenia Society launches a Whistler group in time for Mental Illness Awareness Week

Last winter, Lynn Spark found herself driving to Squamish in a terrible storm.

“That’s how desperate I was,” she said. “It was one of the worst days last winter and I needed someone to talk to.”

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An incident had happened with someone in her family — she doesn’t want to give too many details in order to protect their privacy — but it related to mental illness and it left her in a panic, feeling alone and like no one would understand. Then she heard about a support group in Squamish connected to the North Shore Schizophrenia Society — which offers resources for those suffering not only from schizophrenia, but all mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder — for families who are on the front line dealing with a loved one’s illness.

Because of the snowstorm, Spark was the only one at the meeting that night, but the man hosting it, who had been through a similar situation, helped her feel less isolated. “He was quite helpful,” she said. “He listened to me and told me about his story.”

That experience prompted Spark to get involved with a 12-week Family-to-Family Education Course through the society where she learned about a variety of mental illnesses in a more in-depth way, as well as about different medications, how to solve problems and the way the brain functions. Afterwards, she had the resources she needed to host her own family support groups in Whistler.

It’s the first time that kind of resource will be offered locally. “It’s a very stressful time when someone in your family, or a friend, has a mental health issue and you’re the front line and you’re dealing with it,” she said. “You’re completely new to it. You don’t know where to go or what to expect. When I found the support group it was like I knew these people. They understood what was going on because they went through it. You talk to someone else outside that group and they don’t have a clue.”

Nancy Ford, executive director of the society, said the organization decided to launch a support group in Whistler after receiving several calls from families in both Whistler and Pemberton in need of resources. They recently hired local Chris Dickinson to serve as an outreach worker while Spark has volunteered to host the monthly group. “The board decided that we needed someone in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton to respond to those families’ needs … to help build capacity for families so they can support each other,” she said.

Whistler’s 2013 Community Needs Assessment also found that “the areas of social service that need improvement were more support groups and additional mental health services and programs,” Ford said, quoting the report. “We’re an organization that supports the families and that’s unique. There are services out there for the individuals, but the reason we support the families is there’s huge misinformation and a lack of understanding, even for the families as to what’s happening for their ill relative. When they have the education, they can be part of the team.”

The new group — which will take placethird Wednesday of the month — is being launched just in time for Mental Illness Awareness Week, running from Oct. 5 to 11. Spark hopes that by marking the week it can help end the stigma she discovered is still very much attached to mental illness. “It’s a huge obstacle I’m still dealing with,” she said. “I’m the type of person that will be quite open and I found that a few people who know what happened to me say these things that really annoy me and indicate to me that there’s still a stigma out there and they make me feel bad. I think, ‘If you would’ve taken the course I just took, you wouldn’t be saying that.’”

That, in part, is the value of the support group. “There’s no shame in it,” Spark said. “It’s people who have been through it helping each other. We’re all in the same boat. It’s very casual. You can share whatever you want.”

The next support group takes place on Oct. 15 from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. For more information — including the location — call 1-888-681-1999 or email chris@northshoreschizophrenia.org.

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