By Elly Litvak, coordinator, and Shannon O’Neill, family navigator
Family Navigation and Support program, CMHA Toronto
If you have a loved one who has recently been hospitalized for a mental health concern, here are five things you might want to keep in mind:
1. A diagnosis is not forever.
Diagnoses are helpful for some. They can offer clarity and can lead to more effective treatment. But a diagnosis may also be stigmatizing and traumatic – both for the individual who receives it and for their family members. Sometimes a diagnosis can feel more harmful and ‘othering’ than helpful.
Your loved one is not the label they’ve been given. That label can change or even disappear over time throughout the recovery journey.
2. As a loved one of someone with a mental health condition, this is also happening to you. You need and deserve care and support, too.
Whether you’ve been though many years and many hospitalizations, or whether this is your first time dealing with it, a hospitalization (and often, the events surrounding it) is confusing and frightening for everyone.
You are not alone – we’ve been where you are, both as loved ones of those hospitalized and having experienced the system firsthand ourselves. If your loved one is hospitalized at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, you can reach out to us by emailing or calling email@example.com | (416) 709-2109 or firstname.lastname@example.org | (416) 659-1087.
We will advocate for you, as part of your loved one’s family, to get what you need in the way of support, guidance, and accompaniment through this difficult time and, perhaps even more importantly, in the months that follow your loved one’s release from the hospital.
If your loved one is not at St. Joe’s, here are a few things to keep in mind: First, be sure to connect with the social worker assigned to you. You can work with that person to request a discharge meeting.
Second, a reasonable expectation for your loved one’s hospital stay is that they will be kept safe. While your loved one is being assessed, you can use that time to get some respite and discuss with your family and the hospital’s care team what your options are for post-discharge support.
3. Recovery is a journey. Hospitalization is the first step of that journey. It’s a start not an ending or the whole thing.
A hospital – no matter how competent and strong the care team – is not the place where healing happens but it can be a place where recovery can start.
Once your loved one is discharged from the hospital, after-care is essential for the whole family to take part in the recovery journey and to heal together.
Keep these things in mind about the recovery period:
- Recovery is not linear
- Relapses or revisits are part of the recovery journey and they are opportunities for further learning and growth
- Change is inevitable
- Having a revisit does not mean you are starting all over again from the beginning
4. Our society’s – and maybe your own friends’ and families’ – conceptions of mental illness and its treatment remain highly medicalized and highly stigmatized. There’s a better way of looking at it.
As you engage with hospitals and psychiatric professionals, you will likely hear a lot of terms that might be confusing or even alienating, and you might encounter beliefs and attitudes that feel judgmental and perhaps shameful.
It is often helpful to think of ‘mental illness’, whatever diagnosis or issue your loved one might be experiencing, simply as pain. It is mental pain that is analogous to physical pain. There is no shame or stigma associated with physical pain, nor should there be for mental pain.
ALL human beings exist on a continuum of pain to wellness, and we all might experience pain – mental or physical or both (they are interrelated, often) – at any point in our lives.
Please remember that recovery from pain is a process, a journey. Step by step, healing and better health are within our grasp. There is hope, and you are not alone.
5. Things are getting better. Changes are happening in the system.
Here are some signs of progress that we are seeing.
- More community agencies are grounding their practice in the recovery model
- Many of St. Joseph’s services are now recovery-oriented, and we believe more hospitals will follow suit
- Peer support programs are more common in hospitals and community agencies
- The value and benefits of ‘the lived experience’ (TLE) is being recognized
- Peer- and TLE-led programs are being introduced, e.g., Stella’s Place in Toronto; People USA in the U.S.
- Civilian-staffed wellness check and/or crisis teams are being deployed instead of police in response to 911 calls
- Fewer people are being formally diagnosed via the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the DSM is being actively challenged by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals
- There are evidence-based alternatives to the DSM, such as the Power Threat Meaning Framework (PTMF) in the U.K. and Open Dialogue in Finland.
- There is a new focus and body of literature on thinking critically about the relationship between psychiatry and medication
- There is evidence-based support for the family role in mental health with related psychotherapeutic modalities being developed such as emotion focused family therapy (EFFT)