Family Navigators harness a body of expertise untapped in Ontario

“A peer represents a light in the tunnel"

“The FSP program harnesses the experience and energies of families who have navigated the system and want to help others as an important next step in their own recovery and development,” says Cannon. “A peer represents a light in the tunnel; providing hope through example and reassuring families they are not alone.  We help build skills, knowledge, and confidence, and we reduce self-blame.”

In brief

Dealing with a diagnosis of a mental illness for a child can be confusing and isolating, not only for the child but for the entire family. Supporting parents is critical.

In the issue of Promising Practices, EENet’s Pam Gillett has profiled a recent promising practice: an effort to team up parents who have a child with a mental illness and are new to the children’s mental health system, with other parents who already have experience navigating the system. More specifically, Pam looks at two organizations that have developed and piloted a Made-in-Ontario Model of Family Support in Kinark’s Simcoe County and York Region community mental health programs.

Promising Practices profiles innovative practices and initiatives from around Ontario.

Background

Cathy Dandy

Dealing with a diagnosis of a mental illness for a child can be confusing and isolating, not only for the child but for the entire family. Supporting parents is critical. About five years ago, Kinark’s Director of Parent and Youth Engagement, Cathy Dandy (pictured right), and Executive Director for Parents for Children’s Mental Health (PCMH), Sarah Cannon (pictured below), began to explore the idea of teaming up parents who have a child with a mental illness and are new to the children’s mental health system, with other parents who already have experience navigating the system.  

As a result, the two organizations formed a partnership. With funding from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, they developed and piloted a Made-in-Ontario Model of Family Support in Kinark’s Simcoe County and York Region community mental health programs. PCMH hired two Family Support Providers (FSPs) with experience navigating the children’s mental health system and, after going through the training developed by the FSP project team, they were matched with families in service. The four-stage program was developed, implemented and evaluated.

Four stages of the program

During the initial stage of the family-FSP partnership, the FSP worker meets with the family to establish rapport and trust. As the family shares its experiences, the FSP begins to learn the strengths and needs of the family in order to support them effectively.  

A Family Support Plan is then developed which identifies the most immediate challenges and builds on existing family strengths to overcome these problems that get in the way of healthy family functioning.

Sarah Cannon

The plan also includes identified formal and informal resources needed, and the FSP helps connect the family with those resources to build a larger circle of support. Each member of the family, including siblings, shares in the creation of and commitment to the plan; after all, each person in the family plays a crucial role in how well it functions. As initial goals are met, new goals are established.

The FSPs help the family to develop the skills necessary to manage their lives effectively as well as the skills to advocate and navigate within the various child-serving systems to support their child. Families learn to build both informal and formal supports depending on their preferences and needs. At the final stage of the partnership, the families are discharged from the FSP program with a sustainability plan. 

“The FSP program harnesses the experience and energies of families who have navigated the system and want to help others as an important next step in their own recovery and development,” says Cannon. “A peer represents a light in the tunnel; providing hope through example and reassuring families they are not alone.  We help build skills, knowledge, and confidence, and we reduce self-blame.”

Benefits to families: Emotional support, access to supports, and reduced stress 

A growing body of evidence supports the value of family and youth peer support programs in children’s mental health. The National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health in the US has supported matching families with trained peers for many years and recently developed and implemented a national training and certification program. The Made-in-Ontario model was implemented with a robust evaluation design to help support future expansion. The highlights of the evaluation were released in a report to the Ministry in July 2013.

“Our evaluation begins to show that the FSP program provides positive emotional support to families, which empowers them to navigate the complex mental health system,” says Dandy. “The program also enhances families’ access to other supports for their child, helping to reduce caregiver stress. Families also feel they are better able to cope with the requirements of supporting a child living with a mental illness.” 

Kinark staff agreed that the FSP program enhanced service coordination for families. Clinicians saw the benefit of better-supported and better-connected families, and they were more effective because they could focus exclusively on clinical work. Kinark has been dedicated to family engagement for years. The introduction of Family Support Providers, however, has changed the way it does business.

“Our agency has truly transformed over the past 5 years,” says Dandy. “Creating authentic partnerships with families is not just about us helping families—it is about working with families in a way that is effective, unique and directly aligned with their wants and needs. This program improved everyday practice and clinicians were more aware of the multiple barriers families face.”

Dandy speculates that Family Support Providers may help families move through the system more quickly, and this, combined with families’ increased capacity to manage and cope, could result in less relapse and fewer crises. Dandy and Cannon agree that potentially there are broader system savings to consider outside the scope of the project evaluation, including fewer visits to the Emergency Department, less need for in-patient care, greater efficiencies in continuity of care across services and sectors, improved school retention, and more effective transfers to post-secondary education, to name a few.

Looking to the future: FSP contributing to the transformation of the children’s mental health system
As part of the final report to the Ministry, Kinark and Parents for Children’s Mental Health have recommended further implementation of the Family Support Provision model as a key component to support the government’s commitment to a coordinated, responsive system that makes sense to parents, is easier to navigate, and facilitates clearer pathways to care. Dandy and Cannon also hope to build on the success of this pilot program and create a family support program to benefit those currently on their waitlists.

“The pilot demonstrates the integral role that peer-to-peer support, through Family Support Providers, can play in the child and youth mental health system,” says Cannon. “More importantly, this project highlights the effectiveness of true partnerships between system representatives, agencies, and families. By partnering with Kinark, the largest child and youth mental health agency in Ontario, we have shown that these partnerships can thrive even in large complex organizations, lending confidence to the replicability of this model. By working together collaboratively and sharing expertise, we have been able to elevate the quality of services and improve the effectiveness of treatment.”

For more information on the Family Support Provision Model, contact Sarah Cannon at admin [at] pcmh [dot] ca.

Author: Pam Gillett