Hand in Hand, Side by Side

Family peer support workers like Karolyn are part of the Access 24/7 team, there to guide and answer the hard questions for families supporting loved ones with mental illness.

When mental health services are set up, the focus is naturally on the client. But there are often unaddressed stresses experienced by those closest to a person experiencing mental illness or addiction: their family.

Whether it’s getting their loved one to a clinic, talking to doctors at appointments, or trying to help with income support, family members are often the de facto care team for their loved ones whose mental health has become a challenge. 

While they seek out services for their loved ones, they don’t typically know about or think to look for support for themselves, despite two-thirds of caregivers reporting being worried, anxious or depressed due to their family member’s mental illness.

At Access 24/7, which opened earlier this year, they are addressing this through family peer support workers, who guide and support family members in parallel to their loved ones receiving support.

Says family peer support worker Karolyn, “A lot of people don’t understand how devastating, stressful, worrisome it is for the family members.” 

Karolyn understands, because she’s been there too. 

Four years ago, she was like many of the parents she meets today: uncertain, scared, and isolated. When she felt at a loss to continue supporting her family member alone, she reached out to a therapist. At that time, ACCESS Open Minds, a walk-in clinic for young people, had just opened, and she was able to get connected to a support group for parents. She felt lucky.

Though her family member didn’t initially agree to get connected to services, the group gave her an opportunity to learn more about mental illness and meet other parents like her. It was there that she met Kathy, a family peer support worker, who made the biggest difference in her journey.

“She could relate,” says Karolyn. “She’d gone through the same experience. And that support group she ran opened up my eyes to realize there is stuff for us. I wouldn’t be able to speak to anything if I hadn’t gone through this.”

Karolyn now feels privileged to be able to pass along her knowledge, and use her lived experience as a way to connect with other families.

When someone calls or walks in to Access 24/7, they’re greeted and connected to a mental health therapist for assessment. When they a family member accompanies them or calls on their behalf, which is often the case, a family peer support worker like Karolyn will speak to them while their loved one is being assessed. For those who come to the clinic, this means they don’t have to sit alone, in the dark about what’s going on with their loved one in another room.

Karolyn can help explain the process to family members, getting a feel for where they’re at and what will likely happen next. This takes the uncertainty out of what can be a stressful situation. “Most family members don’t understand what that process looks like. So it’s scary, and no one can explain what’s going on. So as family peers, we explain the process, how to keep in touch, how to communicate with the doctors so you understand the process and maybe the support you can provide afterwards.” 

From there, Karolyn can offer families support for themselves, like support groups or mental health literacy training. “You have to become resourceful, and that’s what I empower family members and loved ones to do. This might be a long term situation, but I also try to instill hope in them. ‘This is where you’re at now,’ I’ll tell them, ‘but that doesn’t mean you’ll stay there.’”

Family peer support workers often meet families at their lowest point, in crisis after nights sitting up with their family members without sleep, sometimes even in the company of police. 

Karolyn’s role in those situations is to be a friend, advocate, and guide, helping families get through this moment and prepare for the future. Many families experience intense isolation, fearing stigma and feeling like they’re alone in their challenges. Having a family peer walk beside them sends a message that they’re not alone.

“Up until that moment they’ve felt alone advocating for their loved ones, and now someone is advocating for them to know what’s going on,” says Karolyn. “Getting to speak to someone and just in a friendly manner, not clinical, people can let their guard down. They feel really comfortable with us because we come from a compassionate, human background. This is all about relationship building and feeling comfortable within a community where all of us going through the same thing. That’s powerful.”

From her personal experience, and the seven months she’s worked as a family peer, Karolyn knows her services are much needed. Each family she meets is going through a different experience, but they all share a desire to help their loved ones. The most gratifying part of the role for Karolyn is the bond she creates with families through their interaction. She knows they won’t forget what she’s told them, and the relationship will serve as a bridge in the future if support is ever needed again.

“Life calms down, and naturally we hope it will for all families, but when crisis hits again, they’re able to call and use our services. That’s a success story for us.”

Donations from generous supporters like you make Karolyn’s role possible, through a partnership between the Mental Health Foundation and the Royal Alexandra Hospital Foundation. Donate today to make a difference for individuals experiencing mental health and addiction in Edmonton.