FamilySmart* for Child and Youth Mental Health

I had the extreme pleasure of attending a two-day conference this weekend called ‘Today’s Children and Youth, Tomorrow’s Families: 2014 Youth and Family Consensus Conference.’  I just arrived home safely and I am writing this blog with pure enthusiasm and excitement as I am moved, touched, and inspired.

FamilySmart – A Philosophy and Practice with Impact

I learned that FamilySmart is a values-based approach to listening, understanding, and responding to the mental health needs of children, youth, and families.  The Institute for Families is the brainchild behind the enlightening philosophy and practice.  It is intended to help families connect with communities across systems to identify and act upon what works and is meaningful to improve child and youth mental health.  The conference was intentionally created to further define and refine the meaning of FamilySmart.  The point of the conference was to create consensus statements and compile them into a report.

The conference as a whole was extremely participatory and all attendees were encouraged to share their personal stories in light of the child and youth mental health theme.  During various workshops I listened to a range of participants: mothers shared their struggles with the mental health system, a number of fathers were frustrated with feeling helpless, and I admired the bravery of two youth, Lucas Mattiello and Brent Seal, who voiced their feelings of empowerment while having had gone very public with their own lived experience. 

Youth Jamming AKA Youth Engagement

The conference did an excellent job of engaging and including youth on their agenda for the weekend.  It was the first example I have ever seen of youth taking such a lead role at a conference full of adults and the results were both effective and also entertaining.  Lucas and Brent made me laugh numerous times during their presentation with their light demeanor and humorous commentary.  It was refreshing. 

The conference organizers urged people to write down questions on large boards in the hotel hallways for youth, and I posed a question that lies heavily on my mind especially with the upcoming commencement of the Bipolar Youth Action Project.  I posed the question: What coping strategies do you practice in regards to wellness?  I was thrilled when the youth shared my question in large bold letters on the PowerPoint slide and their answer included a number of items such as having meaningful employment and volunteer activities, engaging friends, parents, siblings, working ‘with’ their psychiatric teams/families to having amazing role models.  They focused on the mantra For youth – By youth, which by no means is meant to be exclusionary to family/community support, but simply echoes that youth must be leaders in establishing their own mental health wellness plan.

Themes and Nuggets from the Conversations

The term nugget quickly became the name for the outcome, take-away or main theme that was the result of conversations from around the tables.  Nuggets included an array of findings and some were the following:

  • the importance of mental health language,
  • the comparison of the treatment of physical illnesses in the system to that of a mental health crises,
  • the need for creating a space for meaningful dialogue, having families directly in the mental health system,
  • establishing and considering the needs of all family members,
  • questioning the definition of family, and
  • the need for support during all types of transitions in a youth’s life. 

The Institute has committed to drafting a final report to be launched May 7, 2014, which is Child and Youth Mental Health Day.  Just as treatment and support are urgent for a youth posing with a mental health challenge, so are the results needed from the conference. 

A FamilySmart Bipolar Babe

During my own mental health crisis – diagnosis with bipolar disorder and attempted suicide, I was wholly on my own in my younger years during this trauma.  My parents love me but they did not live in the same city as I did and were unable to truly be there for me in any real emotional or physical sense.  In the past, I was so privy to dealing with all of my mental health issues on my own because I didn’t know there was any other way.  I am in awe of the people that I met this weekend because they are weaving support systems, enacting connectedness, and really they just CARE immensely.  I now know I am one of them. Mental health challenges are not meant to be spearheaded by oneself, instead we must include all facets of the community at large, including our medical and educational professionals, peers, siblings, parents, other youth, friends, and so much more. 

FamilySmart is not just about how families can help their youth with their mental health challenges, but we are ALL a family and together we can make a meaningful and profound impact in the lives of youth struggling with their mental health.