Recent years have seen an increased awareness of the risks that children of parents with mental illness or addiction (COPMIA) face. While there are a range of services that support children and parents in Taranaki, none of them are specifically focused on the challenges that COPMIA face.
SF Taranaki has undertaken this project to identify a sustainable means of meeting this need. Following a period of community consultation and research into existing programmes (both New Zealand based and international) it was established that interventions need to focus on fostering resilience, reducing self-blame and stigma for the children and resourcing their parents to improve or maintain attachment, social engagement and learn skills for dealing with stress, anxiety and problem-solving.
It was decided to pilot a structured group programme. The programme was run twice, with evaluation and adjustments made after the first programme.
Five children attended each programme. Three families attended the first programme and five attended the second. Two of the teenagers who attended the second programme had been part of the first group of children too. One young person attended without parental participation.
Children and parents were seen in separate groups, once a week. A psychotherapist and a student mental health worker facilitated the adult programme; an arts therapist and an adult who had experience of growing up in a family with mental illness facilitated the children’s group.
The evaluation focused primarily on process (rather than outcome) with data being gathered from the facilitators after each session and a group evaluation at the end of the pilot. Feedback from the families was gathered from the parent group midway through the first programme and at interviews with each of families after the finish of the programme.
The following conclusions were reached
• Six weeks is too short for families to develop trust and make the changes they are seeking. 10-12 weeks would be a better model.
• Families with older children, with disorganized attachment or where the children have their own significant mental health challenges, need a more intensive intervention than the group model we used. Perhaps a mixture of family sessions and group sessions would meet this need.
• Families with significant mental health challenges do not want to attend generic “parenting classes” provided by agencies to NZ families. The challenges they face as parents need special consideration by people who understand their mental health challenges.
• Many of these families are weary of, and defended against well-meaning social services trying to “fix” them. Some families need time to build trust.
When asked about the outcomes of programme particpation, the consensus was that both adults and children found the social connection and sharing of a common experience, in a safe space, to be the aspect of the programme that they valued the most. All the of the children said that they would like to continue meeting and most of the adults felt this way too.
Most families reported instances of gains in insight and were able to make small changes in interpersonal relating and individual behavior.
The evaluation confirmed some of the existing knowledge about the stressors experienced by the COPMIA families. These include: poverty, confusing and conflicting involvement of multiple agencies, generic services that do not meet individual needs, stigma and bullying, disruption of parenting capacity and social isolation.
The need for improvement in interagency and service co-ordination and collaboration was highlighted.
For some children, a caseworker who can provide support and advocacy, in particular during periods of crisis, is indicated.