Nine graduates were honoured with certificates and celebration on April 20.
But these graduates were the first of their kind.
The men and women were graduating from the Strengthening Families Together: First Nation edition program held at Shxwha:y Village Hall in Chilliwack.
The ten-week program is a B.C. Schizophrenia Society (BCSS) initiative that provides information, tools and support to family members and friends of individuals who have a serious and persistent mental illness.
This pilot First Nations edition began in February, and it was designed to better reflect and assist the Aboriginal population.
“We wanted to make the program adaptable and flexible for all communities,” said Cindy Savage, provincial project coordinator with BCSS. “This is a great milestone in the project.”
The three trained Aboriginal facilitators – Sherylynn Crispin, Phyllis Vanderheide and Glen Malloway – relate to the participants using their own experiences of caring for a loved one or working with individuals with mental illness.
Like all BCSS programming, the Strengthening Families Together (SFT) program is family-oriented.
It provides an opportunity for families to discuss the daily challenges they face with others who understand; to receive reliable information about mental illness, treatment options and available services; and learn about tools for effective problem solving, coping, advocacy and communication.
As the facilitators spent Wednesday evenings with this dedicated group of people, they transformed each week’s topics into meaningful and powerful conversations.
Sharing knowledge from her own family’s experience with schizophrenia, facilitator Crispin revealed that the process of diagnosis and treatment is relatively straightforward, compared to the social hurdles.
Being labelled differently and treated as such is a challenge that many face when it comes to mental illness, but a heightened awareness is changing the conversation.
Facilitator Vanderheide stressed the importance of self-care. She drew comparison to the airline message that instructs fliers to apply their own oxygen mask before helping others. “If you don’t look after yourself first, you won’t be able to look after others effectively,” she explained.
Working in the mental health field for many years, often with high-risk youth and adults with undiagnosed mental illnesses, facilitator Malloway was able to teach participants how to communicate with someone with a serious mental illness, and how that connection – rather than avoidance – might help the individual.
“It’s a First Nations way just to help one another. That’s what we do,” he said. And by becoming educated through programs like SFT, participants are able to share that cycle of knowledge with others.
As the participants were called up one by one to receive their certificates, they shared their stories with courage and honesty.
While some joined the program to learn how to help their child, and for others it was their spouse, parent or friend, each participant took away valuable information. They described the weekly meetings as a safe and supportive place, where you can lean on one another in your time of need.
“I’ve learned how to communicate better, and to build healthy boundaries,” one graduate said.
“What this did for me was put a name to the things that I saw, which will allow me to help others,” another explained.
“The most important message that I got out of this is that it’s not shameful to have a mental illness.”
“This program will provide guidance for people in our village for where to seek help.”
“I’m thankful to have my son back.”
Tina Sam, Chief Councillor of Shxwha:y Village, was a proud supporter and participant in the pilot program. “It opened my eyes a lot,” she said. “And it brought us together.”
Participating in the program, she hopes, will allow her to better understand her band members and become a better Chief for the people of Shxwha:y. She spoke of creating a support group to take the program further and to provide an additional resource for the village.
As the facilitators and participants exchanged heartfelt gifts and gratitude, the program coordinators congratulated the entire group of “trailblazers” on a successful pilot program.
BCSS Fraser East regional coordinator Francesca Arueyingho commended Chief Sam specifically for taking ownership of the program. “People look to you. They ask ‘What is Chief Tina doing about this?’ and they’ll say, “If she’s not ashamed [of mental illness], why should we be?’”
According to Savage, the First Nations program is starting to grow, with acknowledgement and interest in the program from other communities, not only in B.C., but across Canada and internationally.
“Our humble program has the potential to move mountains one day,” facilitator Crispin told the group. “You all are the first steps to that.”
Learn more about the programs and services that B.C. Schizophrenia Society offers at BCSS.org.