Engaging Families: The Work Continues

Written on by Susan Benzie

I am happy to announce Voice and Vision’s recent webinar What is Family Engagement? Strategies for Supporting Families and their Loved Ones in Recovery and Beyond is now available to view on our website. I was so blessed to watch it live and pleased to hear Trish Caldwell, Vice-president at Recovery Centers of America, and Kathleen Morris Rosati, the parent of a young man challenged by addiction, emphasize the need to involve family members (or others important to a person) in substance use treatment. 

Since 2014 through 2021, as part of Voice and Vision’s survey process, Consumer/Family Satisfaction Teams have asked over 1000 adults (in treatment for mental illness or substance use) “Who do you turn to for support other than professionals?” We heard from 84% that they turn to their families. This data seems to confirm Trish’s comment that, while individuals may not sign releases to involve their families in their treatment, they almost always involve them in their crises. 

And yet, most families have not had the benefit of education, direction, and support to know how to handle the crisis in a way that is best for the family AND the individual. Individuals dealing with addiction told us they wish their families could understand addiction and see the hurtful things they did while addicted were not “who they were” but the “addiction talking.” They also wanted their families to know how to support them without supporting their addiction. Family members also told us they wish they had known sooner about the “biology of addiction” as this helped them direct their anger at the addiction and not their loved one. They also benefited from learning how to distinguish between those behaviors which support a loved one’s recovery and those behaviors which support the addiction. Kathleen shared a wonderful example from her journey: As a mother, it was hard to hear her son tell her he didn’t have anything to eat. Early in his addiction, she gave him money that he would then use for drugs. She tried gift cards, but he was able to trade them for drugs. She finally learned, when he called saying he had no food, she could meet him and treat him to a meal. She was helped to learn this strategy from attending a support group for persons with a substance use issue AND their family members.

Trish and Kathleen confirmed that families need to learn the “language of recovery” so they can reinforce what their loved ones learn in treatment. However, as Trish cited in her presentation, we have learned that family members are often only marginally included, if at all. Providers often cite the need for signed releases. Yet, “family involvement” isn’t a “one size fits all”; rather, there are multiple ways to involve family members. Both Trish and Kathleen pointed out ways to involve families, even when their loved one isn’t willing to sign a release. Providers can offer education programs open to anyone; this informs families about mental illness and substance use disorders to gain more understanding, to learn from other people facing similar challenges, and to become aware of services and supports available. With this knowledge, families will be in a better position to encourage their loved ones to include them in their treatment and therapy. Families can reach out to providers to share their concerns and observations without a release; providers can listen and benefit from what they share even if they can’t provide any information to the family.

This past year, Voice and Vision began gathering additional data on family involvement from people we interview — those in treatment for mental illness as well as those in treatment for substance use — to ascertain ways in which people would like their families involved, such as:

  • educating family about mental illness and/or substance use
  • connecting family members to support groups
  • including family members in treatment planning
  • including family in therapy sessions
  • teaching family skills to better support the person in treatment
  • including family in discharge planning 

Because we have just started asking about this, results are preliminary; however, so far, we are hearing that one-third to one-half of survey participants would like their family involved in at least one of these ways. As we continue to gather this data, we will offer practical solutions on engaging families to providers, insurance companies, and county entities who oversee the services, and, over time, we hope to see an increase in the number of families involved in treatment and recovery. 

In 2015, I was privileged to be part of the team interviewing 74 young adults in treatment for addiction as part of a project in Bucks County to learn what was leading to repeated drug and alcohol relapse. During those interviews, 93% of those young adults told us it was important to have their family (or someone important to them) involved in their treatment and recovery. Their basic comment was “I can’t do this alone.” One young person shared, “I don’t think it’s possible to get clean without family. But if family support is not possible, turning to the community for support would be important. You need love and support for recovery.”  We hope through webinars such as this and our Help and Hope Guide, families will get the love and support THEY need to be able to offer love and support to their loved ones during their recovery journey.

To listen to a recording of the What is Family Engagement? Strategies for Supporting Families and their Loved Ones in Recovery and Beyond webinar, click here.

This blog was written by guest author, Susan Benzie who is the Voice and Vision Director of Data, Research, and Design. In this role, Susan provides support and mentoring to the Coordinators of the Bucks, Chester, and Delaware County Consumer/Member Family Satisfaction Teams. She is also responsible for the analysis and trending of data gathered across all three Counties. As a Masters level Social Worker, Sue brings both professional and personal experience with the behavioral health system to Voice and Vision.

Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

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