November is National Family Caregivers Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of caregivers and raise awareness of resources available to support them. We’re spotlighting a program within our network that helps individuals who care for loved ones with mental illness.
Being a caregiver of any kind is not easy, and being a caregiver for a loved one with serious mental illness presents its own challenges.
It can be difficult to navigate the behavioral healthcare system. It also can be isolating if close friends and family are unfamiliar with mental illness and behavioral health crises. For these reasons, it’s important that caregivers have an array of support options available.
One program that the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County (ADAMH) helps fund in this space is the Family Advocate Program run by Mental Health America of Ohio (MHAOhio).
The Family Advocate Program connects central Ohio family members and loved ones of persons living with a mental illness to peer family advocates. The program’s volunteers have knowledge of the local mental health system and also personally understand what it means to support a family member, significant other or friend.
The need for this program was identified by Ed Desmond, who is now the program’s lead volunteer. Ed identified a gap in support for caregivers for loved ones with mental illness. MHAOhio and others were already running support groups for this population, but Ed felt like individuals needed one-on-one help navigating the healthcare system and dealing with crises.
“When Ed came to us with the idea for this program, I had already been seeing a trend of family members calling for help with navigation through our program Get Connected,” said LeeAnn Mattes, the Get Connected Program Director at MHAOhio. “After the initial crisis and navigation and referrals were made, family members continued to reach out for on-going support.”
Creating the Family Advocate Program helped formalize and strengthen the support that was occurring. The program began in late 2019 and is continuing to grow every year. The goal was to serve 30 new participants every year. They’ve already exceeded that this year, with LeeAnn estimating they’ve helped about 50 new individuals to date in 2023.
"Our operating motto is ‘never worry alone.’ We put this into use by many things we do and say to engender inclusion and trust,” said Ed. “The Family Advocate volunteers usually begin by helping the family members through a mental health crisis, all while fostering a relationship of support to enable the family member to get their own lives back on track.”
Jenny Schoning is another one of the program’s volunteers. She shared that caregivers often come to her feeling confused, scared and overwhelmed, but through their conversations, Jenny is able to give them a sense of hope that recovery is possible.
“As a family advocate, I’ve been able to share my lived experience caring for a son with a severe mental illness. It’s so rewarding when someone tells me that what I’ve shared has helped them. And although I don’t always have answers, I can bring empathy and compassion because I’ve lived it,” she said.
Jenny added that the experience has benefited her, too. “Volunteering as a family advocate not only helps others; it gives me an opportunity to learn and connect with a caring and compassionate community.”
If you have lived experience being a caregiver for someone with serious mental illness and would like to volunteer for the Family Advocate program, contact email@example.com. Volunteers are needed to meet the increase in demand for support. Volunteers receive training and have the flexibility to choose how many participants they want to assist.