By Kiesa Kay
Most mothers mend whatever they can…
“As a parent, you want to fix the things that break. If the car breaks, you fix it. If the dishwasher breaks, you fix it. If a leg is broken, you fix it,” said Lisbeth Riis Cooper, chairwoman of Mother Bear: Families for Mental Health. “But when a family member experiences emotional or mental distress, how do you “fix” that? And is it fixable?”
Lisbeth founded Mother Bear: Families for Mental Health here in Western North Carolina to help families learn to find meaning and coping skills when a family member experiences mental health challenges. One in four adults, or about 57.7 million Americans, experience mental health challenge in any given year.
“The first thing to know about mental health recovery is that when a psychotic break or problem occurs, we need to have the tools to know how to respond in a productive way.”
We need to learn to accept that we may not be able to “fix it”, but with the right tools we can become good supporters and assistants to the family member who’s healing, and to ourselves,” Lisbeth said.
Mother Bear offers online family education, local Family Den support and educational groups, and a Family Hope Line as tools for healing. Families have opportunity to share the tools they’ve found, while gaining more ideas and resources.
Mother Bear already has a national impact as a fund of the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care. Gina Nikkel, president and CEO of the Foundation, described Mother Bear as a perfect extension and outreach to help educate and bring families together to heal.
“We all need to help each other build our mental health toolboxes,” Gina said. “Some people might have medications in their toolboxes, along with exercise, diet, and spirituality. We can help families choose the right tools for the work they need to do.”
The Family Hope line, 1-855-IHOPE4U, operates on Tuesdays from 2 pm to 5 pm and Thursdays, 8 pm to 11 pm EST. It’s a support and information line more than a crisis line. Like all resources offered by Mother Bear, the Family Hope Line offers support to all friends, family members, and self-advocates. Emily DeSerio, family education specialist, emphasized that all family members, including the person with lived experience of mental health challenges, are welcomed into Mother Bear.
“We offer listening, reassurance, and support. We help families find their strengths. Our recovery-oriented resource list is growing, and we invite families to help us grow it further,” Emily said. “And you don’t have to be a mother to be a Mother Bear,” Emily noted. “We are all Mother Bears.”
The founding families and staff members come to this work through learned experience. In addition to professional experience, they all have first-hand knowledge of the pearls and perils of the recovery journey. After many years of effort with the mental health system, Julie Huneycutt, community and development director, lost her youngest daughter to a prescription drug overdose in 2010. Drugs prescribed to ease Anna’s struggle with depression and anxiety were in her system when she died.
“My goal is to see that families are empowered to help their loved ones. I want them to know that they are not alone, and they have choices in treatment,” Julie said. “I feel like if we can help even one family navigate the system better, Anna’s life won’t be in vain.”
Julie found the mental health care system to be overwhelming, as it can be for many families. First comes a crisis for the family, followed by a smorgasbord of diagnostic possibilities and treatment options. They might have no experience with the labels suddenly stuck to their family members, like clinical depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and addiction. They often don’t care about the labels; they only want suffering to stop. And while the family struggles to find answers for one person, the other children need attention, too, and the family has to balance this unfamiliar, complicated situation with all the daily needs of work life and home life.
“I was absolutely clueless about the system,” Julie said. “It was uncharted territory for us. We never had anyone offer us resources. As a matter of fact, because of HIPAA (privacy) laws, getting information was extremely difficult. We paid for treatments but we weren’t given any information. We only got the bills.”
Mother Bear works to change how families receive support during emotional crises. The organization’s website, social media and newsletters offer a host of online resources including information about a variety of treatment approaches and recovery options. These online resources can also help families make informed choices about medications often prescribed for mental health concerns.
“Once you get on the highway of medications and medical services, it can seem almost impossible to find an off-ramp that feels safe,” said Toby Maurer, creative and operations director.
Medications can be lifesaving, but they may be accompanied by a host of side effects, including weight gain, reduced mental functioning and an increased risk for diseases like diabetes. Reducing medications too quickly or without medical support can result in devastating outcomes, so families need real information about the prescriptions, combinations, effects and side effects.
“Most of all, families need to find additional tools,” Lisbeth asserted. “To me, recovery for families means realizing you didn’t cause it; accepting yourself and loving yourself so you can give love to others; stopping the blame game; and learning how to stop pushing buttons. I want to help families get the tools they need to understand and cope with what’s happening, so they can make appropriate responses.”
When Julie’s daughter returned to the family after hospitalizations, the family had been left in the dark, so they lacked the tools for her reintegration into home, family, and community life. Mother Bear hopes to help.
The Family Dens offer opportunities to explore and understand pertinent concerns, as participants meet face-to-face with other families experiencing similar struggles. Family Dens start up again in May in Asheville and Hendersonville. Families can meet weekly in a facilitated, confidential setting to discuss different themes pertaining to the recovery journey. They’ll learn self-care strategies that will strengthen their own resilience, too.
“Regardless of where a family member is in recovery, the whole family can get support,” said Jennifer Maurer, managing director of Mother Bear. “The family recovery journey is not one journey, but many. When someone in our family struggles, we all struggle. Together, we can learn how to respond and support each other in new, more empowering ways, rather than reacting out of fear or old habits. By learning to be grounded in ourselves, we can become healthier and more supportive when someone we love struggles.”
Gina noted that when a person has a physical challenge, whether it’s a disease like cancer or a broken bone, others will rush to help them. A community often will gather to strengthen and support the family, with kind words, prayers, and fundraisers for uncovered medical expenses. When a mental health challenge arises, though, the family may be isolated or ostracized from a community because of societal stigma and misinformation.
“We want to break down the barricade of stigma in the nation and world so families can openly and successfully deal with emotional challenges. We want anyone who experiences any sort of issue with mental wellness to be able to bring it up and find support,” Toby said.
Family education reduces that burden and helps when a family member’s encountered a mental health challenge and wants to reintegrate fully into family life. Sometimes a family has new stressors even at joyful times, when a family member returns from a hospital or recovery center feeling better, because the old roles don’t fit any more.
“Most important of all, meet the person where they are,” Lisbeth said. “When a person comes back, that person has changed and grown. Stand back, listen, and learn where things are now. As a teacher, I taught that we have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth, and we must learn to use them in that proportion. We must be willing to listen and learn from each other.”
Mental health challenges exist on a continuum for everyone, and Mother Bear helps families live as happily as possible while they work through difficult times.
“Everybody experiences challenge with mental wellness at some time and at some level. Some people may experience a very moderate level, such as anxiety when taking tests, while others may wake up anxious in the morning and have anxiety that permeates every aspect of every day. It’s a spectrum,” Toby said.
Mother Bear plans to develop volunteer training programs so it can expand its Family Hope Line capacity and make Family Dens available nationally and beyond.
“We have already received requests to start Dens in at least 16 states and in Canada, Australia, the UK, and Switzerland,” Jennifer said. “The need for family support is so vast. Currently, our underfunded public mental health system provides very little support for families, even though research has demonstrated that involving families in the treatment and recovery process can reduce relapse and re-hospitalization rates by as much as 75 percent.”
Mother Bear’s mental health education emphasizes strengths rather than defi cits or disorders, an approach that restores hope and helps families cope with emotional distress and move into wellness.
“In the midst of crisis, families can forget the inner resources they have that can encourage healing,” Jennifer asserted. “In fact, their relationship can be the most powerful medicine in recovery.”
By focusing on strengths, Mother Bear hopes to change societal views of mental health, and, in the process, give families a voice to break down the walls of stigma and silence.
“All of us can find healing and transformation in supportive relationships with people who can see our strengths and remind us when we have forgotten them,” Jennifer said. “We’re all in this together. Individual recovery is a family affair. And family recovery is a community affair. We can’t do it alone, but together, we can heal our families.”
For more information about Mother Bear’s family education and support services, visit www.motherbearcan.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call the Family Hope Line, 1-855-IHOPE4U (1-855-446-7348).
Kiesa Kay, BSJ, MA, NCCFI, writes articles and books from her lakehouse on Melrose Mountain in North Carolina. Her first educational anthology, Uniquely Gifted: Identifying and Meeting the Needs of the Twice Exceptional Student, has been a best seller for Avocus for more than a decade. Her second, High IQ Kids, received the Legacy Award as the Best Book for Parents and Teachers in its publication year. Kiesa also writes poetry and plays. She’s learning to play the fiddle.