Families of those recovering from serious mental health issues are probably one of the last groups within the mental health community to embrace the vision of recovery. Their experience of the mental health system is often one of despair, hopelessness, helplessness, alienation, isolation and discrimination. Families are often told to grieve the loss of their loved one as they knew them, to lower all expectations and to make sure their family member takes their medications. This leads to a family environment that does not promote recovery. How can a family embrace recovery when they feel their lives are full of loss, sadness, anger and power struggles?

Traditionally, family support and education programs mostly focused on teaching families about diagnosis, treatments, mental health resources, crisis intervention, communication skills and self-care. There was little, if any, mention of recovery and no
critical examination of the mental health system from a trauma-informed and anti-oppression perspective. These programs created like-minded thinking between families and mental health professionals, which further reinforced the idea that recovery is not possible.

In 2001, the Family Outreach and Response Program was introduced to Recovery. While the program had always worked together with consumer/survivor advocacy organizations and fought against coercive legislation – we really didn’t have a framework for working directly with families that felt empowering for both families and their relatives. The philosophy, values, principles and concepts of recovery filled this void and the first Mental Health Recovery Series was written.

Participants have responded extremely positively to the series, so much so, the request for the Series is so great we are barely able to keep up with demand. We have also trained several service providers locally, provincially, nationally and internationally.

The Series has also acted as a catalyst for families to demand change within the mental health system. The participants have now adopted a critical perspective of the system and want more alternative recovery-oriented services available to their family members.

Families are inquiring as to whether our program can provide some of these alternatives such as the Wellness and Recovery Action Plan, Pathways To Recovery, and Hearing Voices groups. Our program is always striving to expand our services to meet this request.

Eventually, our vision is to have a Family Mental Health Recovery Centre, a community that provides all types of groups, educational and advocacy events that promotes recovery, peer support and is inclusive of the diverse families within the Toronto area.