Cheryl Zipper says her son was always extremely shy, but it wasn’t until he was about 13 that she and her husband started to worry that something was wrong. He’d study for hours and hours but continued to get poor grades. When he was 19, a doctor told them their son had Asperger syndrome.
It wasn’t until seven years later that they learned he had schizophrenia.
“When we were told he had Asperger’s, we thought that was it,” Zipper says in a phone interview. “We were told if we waited till he was about 25, things would start to improve. So we waited, which was the worst possible thing we could have done. He progressively got worse.
“We didn’t know what the problem was,” she adds. “We felt so helpless.”
What helped Zipper better understand her son’s condition was the Family to Family course offered by the North Shore Schizophrenia Society (NSSS). Relatives of people with severe mental illnesses lead a course that helps those facing the same kind of diagnosis with a loved one. It was that program that gave Zipper the skills, knowledge, language, and comprehension she so desperately needed to help her son—and the whole family.
“The best help we got was taking the Family to Family course,” says Zipper, who now heads the NSSS’s board of directors and coordinates the Family to Family program. “Speaking with people who are going through what you are, or much worse, is quite empowering. It enables you to move forward. You learn things, and information is power.
“People who take this course really bond; they can talk freely and can open up about their feelings, the problems they’re having,” she adds. “They know nobody’s judging them. They can be open, and that can be really good for people.”
The Family to Family education program is being offered beyond North Vancouver, with an upcoming course taking place in Vancouver in partnership with RainCity Housing with the support of the Vancouver Foundation. The free 12-session course covers a range of topics: symptoms and causes of major illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety; treatments; problem-solving, coping, and communication strategies for those living with or caring for someone who is ill; guidance on locating appropriate local supports and services; and how caregivers can and need to take care of themselves.
The program also provides information on concurrent disorders (mental illnesses and substance-use disorders) and the latest research into various mental illnesses and evidence-based therapies.
Above all, the course offers family members a sense of community.
“Unless you walk the walk, you don’t really understand what you’re dealing with,” says Nancy Ford, executive director of the NSSS, who participated in the course herself when her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia many years ago. “There’s a credibility that comes with someone who’s lived the experience.
“This program was the lifesaver for us,” Ford adds. “It was a family who had been taught by another family who taught us what to say, who to talk to, how to navigate the system, and how to get the support for my son.”
Ford says the program model—families learning from families, then teaching other families—is especially effective and necessary given the growing demands on the public purse.
“With government funding dwindling and the aging senior population eating into the health-care budget, building capacity in families, having families as part of the team, is so powerful,” Ford says, noting that the program has been implemented throughout the North Shore, as well as in Squamish and Whistler, and on the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island. Upcoming sessions will also take place in the Tri-Cities area. “There’s so much potential to complement the services of existing agencies. We’re happy to support any community in delivering it.”
The NSSS is contracted to deliver the program locally through the Arlington, Virginia–based National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Fostering empathy is another outcome of the course that made a world of difference to Zipper and her family.
“At some point, people start to see the illness from the perspective of the ill person, and that really changes things for people,” she says. “That really helps. When people understand it’s a brain disorder, not just a matter of ‘pulling up your socks’, they understand the person better.”
The North Shore Schizophrenia Society and RainCity Housing’s Family to Family education program takes place in Vancouver on Tuesday evenings from September 23 to December 9. For more information, visit the North Shore Schizophrenia website or call 604-926-0856.