“It takes a village to raise a child.” – African Proverb
The role of family support in restoring and maintaining behavioral health and recovery cannot be overvalued. However, family members are often traumatized, frightened, angry and disillusioned after unsuccessfully trying to help their loved one by themselves. The period after treatment is crucial for maintaining recovery and promoting behavioral health. Recruiting as many family members and supportive others in reinforcing a new way of life helps the entire family.
Parents sometimes feel alone after their son returns home from treatment. Other family members might seem nowhere to be found during this important juncture in time. Often, fear, confusion, resentments or other reasons keep them away. Scientists have explored these behaviors and barriers, and have found that the reasons are often very simple and manageable.
Insight from research
A focus group study involving family members and significant others of those with severe mental illness examined common themes that arose during group sessions with significant others and family members. Kelly Aschbrenner, Ph.D., and her colleagues at Dartmouth Center for Aging Research, Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, published their study in the November 2012 issue of the journal Health & Social Work. They discovered what promoted family participation in healthy behaviors and what the barriers to participation were.
First, the families in the study reported that understanding the challenges of behavioral illness and improving relationships with their family member or significant other was helpful. Another interesting finding was that families reported the most helpful in facilitating positive changes was to actually participate in daily exercise and healthy meals along with their loved one. It would seem that perhaps participating in daily and healthy behaviors together would, in turn, improve relationships.
Partner reliability and desirability were reportedly factors that affected progress for significant others. Major barriers reported by families were scheduling issues and lack of financial resources. Although time and money are so often barriers to personal growth in general in today’s society, there are ways to promote health in any case. Recruiting as many family members as possible divides the time and financial burden, and provides a support network for all.
Engaging family members and supportive others
The following are recommended steps to take toward engaging family members and supportive others to voluntarily participate in behavioral health:
- Start early. Call a family meeting before discharge. Invite supportive friends and others who care about the individual. Such meetings may need to be repeated at various intervals after discharge. Post-discharge meetings should include everyone
- Provide information. A good place to start is a brief description of the condition and treatment recommendations. It is important to emphasize that no one is to blame and that everyone is doing the best that he or she can. Include a discussion regarding treatment recommendations and what constitutes behavioral health habits, for example, sleep times, nutritional guidelines, exercise routine, medications and appointments
- Encourage discussion. Informal, open discussions give everyone the opportunity to ask questions, share thoughts and express feelings. Volunteers can then share their own schedules, available resources and level of involvement
- Help each other. Once everybody shares what is happening in their own lives, they can help each other. This offers the additional benefit of sharing other responsibilities, as well as an opportunity to improve family relationships and lower stress overall for everyone. Take care to share responsibilities as equally as possible and to set clear policies and schedules
- Communicate often. Keep communications open and positive, focusing on the present, rather than dwelling on the past or ruminating about the future. Be as flexible and supportive with each other as possible
- Stay focused. It is important to never demonize those who cannot or will not help out, as each has his or her own life to lead. Remember to appreciate that the crises of the past are over and that each family member still has each other. What a wonderful way for everyone to begin again
The rewards of working together
Improved relationships, lower stress and better communication are the rewards for families when promoting behavioral health for loved ones. Regular sleep and exercise habits along with regular, nutritious meals as a family improve the health and well-being of all who choose to participate. Working together allows everyone to make healthy changes that last a lifetime.
At White River Academy, we understand the tragedies and triumphs of behavioral health disorders in the young. Our program for young men provides relief and ongoing assistance for those who are struggling with behavioral problems, mental illness, substance use disorders and co-occurring conditions. We also support the families who love them. For more information on helping a loved one who is struggling, please call our 24/7 helpline today.