The Possibility of Being Green

Sharing the language of recovery with families, Skye Barbic breathes new life into how we explain mental illness to ourselves and the world around us.

Featured in the Embracing Recovery section of the MHF 2017-2018 Annual Report.


For Skye Barbic, recovery starts with knowing where you are at and where you want to be. “It’s about telling a story.”

Recovery is personal, she says, so the way we talk about it has to be, too.

But for some, it’s difficult to find the language.

Barbic told this to a full room of service providers and family members earlier this year as the keynote speaker for FAMI Alberta’s latest Love You Forever workshop.

The workshop, hosted twice a year, is a chance for parents to become more educated about their loved ones’ mental illnesses.

Says AJ, one of FAMIA’s founders, “the point is to do less harm.”

AJ’s son is now 31, but the signs of mental illness first became obvious at age 18 or 19, right after he began University. By 24, her son was on the street.

“At the time, we just thought he was being creative,” she jokes.

Her son has since been diagnosed with schizophrenia. It’s been a struggle.  When her son was first diagnosed, AJ found few answers to help her support her son’s illness.

I was told to join a support group…but then what? I just wanted someone to explain what schizophrenia was to me or to tell me how I could be a good supporter.

AJ soon met other like minded families. Together, they initiated a grassroots movement to fill gaps in service and advocate for improved treatment. Love You Forever was their first initiative, in November 2016. Support from community organizations, including the Mental Health Foundation, has allowed them to continue, all thanks to generous donors.

As a speaker for the 4th edition of Love You Forever, Barbic used her experience as an occupational therapist to guide parents towards language that will help them better understand and talk about their loved one’s illness.

To demonstrate, Barbic always carries one object with her: a colourful plastic ruler, available at most dollar stores.

It’s a novel solution for a common problem. Recovery is the single most targeted outcome in mental health, says Barbic, but there is no clear way to determine when someone has achieved it. “How do we measure outcomes we don’t see?” she asks.

Echoing the Robert Munsch book the workshop is named after, Barbic relates a simple 30 cm ruler to the “back and forth, back and forth of recovery.” Recovery, she says, is not binary. It’s not a question of being sick or being well. “It’s a journey called health and we’re all on it.”

The ruler tells the story of this journey in 10 cm pieces marking red (low recovery), yellow (medium recovery), and green (high recovery) zones. Each person’s story will look different, but using a standard measure ensures we’re planning treatment effectively.

If you can explain what being at each stage looks like to you, it’s easier to make decisions to get there. Or, in the case of families, it’s easier to know exactly what to advocate for on their loved ones’ behalf.

Ultimately, says Barbic, it’s about building a community that allows us to thrive. And that means funding the needs of people rather than just treating crisis. Using the ruler, families can tell service providers exactly what’s needed to move their loved one up the scale, not just out of the red zone, but also out of the yellow.

Skye Barbic wants families supporting adults with mental illness to believe in the possibility of their child someday being in their version of the green zone.

For a group of parents who rarely imagine that recovery will happen for their loved one, Barbic’s ruler represents a new way to look at their experience. Just because their child isn’t at the top of the green zone doesn’t mean that they aren’t moving towards recovery. And it doesn’t mean they won’t ever thrive. It’s all about how we measure progress.

Each parent left the workshop with a plastic ruler of their own, prepared to tell a new story: one of hope.

Are you a parent caring for a loved one with a mental illness? Find more resources at FAMI Alberta’s website. Or you can join an secure online support network of other parents through FAMI Alberta’s closed group on Facebook. The next installment of Love You Forever is on November 3; check here for details closer to the date.