CASA Foundation has provided funding to support the new FamilySmart® Parents-in-Residence (PiRs) to provide support and mentorship to other parents or family members who are struggling to help kids with mental health and/or substance use challenges.

Candace Fehr, Co-Chair of the CASA Family Advisory Council, and Lori Erickson, a parent on the CASA Family Advisory Council, assumed their new roles as PiRs at CASA effective April 1, 2019. The appointments were announced by FamilySmart® CEO Keli Anderson and Dr. Denise Milne, CEO of CASA and CASA Foundation.

“We’re super super-excited to be working with CASA on launching the PiR program in Edmonton,” says Anderson, whose team led two FamilySmart® training sessions in the city in March. “We’ve been building this program for a long time but this is the first time we’ve taken it beyond B.C., so this is a big milestone for us.”

FamilySmart® already has a network of 27 part-time PiRs covering 34 communities across B.C., working alongside families and mental health professionals to provide more compassionate, family-centred care for children and adolescents. The new PiR appointments at CASA increase the total to 29.

FamilySmart® also oversees a parallel Youth-In-Residence (YiR) program – involving youth with lived experience – and its YiRs now work alongside PiRs at the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre in BC Children’s Hospital, and in the Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Stabilization Unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Anderson established FamilySmart® in 2015, when the two organizations she co-founded – the FORCE Society for Mental Health (Families Organized for Recognition and Care Equality) and the National Institute of Families for Child & Youth Mental Health – merged. Anderson co-founded the FORCE in 2000 and the Institute of Families in 2010.

“We’re hoping Albertans will benefit from what we’ve learned in B.C. over the past 19 years. I can’t say enough thanks to Dr. Milne and the leadership at CASA, including CASA’s Family Advisory and Youth Advisory Councils,” she says.

Anderson addressed a forum on Family-Centred Care at NAIT on March 12th, where she told the painful story of her son’s battle with bipolar disorder, and the profound impact it had on her family.

In the late 1990s, Anderson was a successful executive at Vancity, B.C.’s largest credit union, when her then five-year-old son James began having violent mood swings and angry outbursts. There were lots of opinions and judgements on why he was having such difficulty, but very little help.

In desperation, Anderson and her husband Dave began seeking professional help, but it wasn’t until they met an empathetic social worker at a local hospital that they felt their son and their family were seen and believed in terms of what was really happening to them.

“He was a very good-looking little boy but I remember there was sort of a darkness in his eyes, a desperate fear. And once I saw it
I couldn’t unsee it,” the social worker recalled later. “There was just something qualitatively different about him.”

For Anderson and her husband, it was a life-altering moment. “Everything changed for us in that moment. You could tell the way she (the social worker) looked at us that she saw us, who we really are,” she says.

More painful revelations followed. She discovered Canada had no mental health plan for children, prompting her to ask, “Why don’t we have a mental health plan for kids?” in a Global TV interview.

When she sought a more flexible work schedule to deal with her son’s issues, it was rejected by her boss, forcing her to quit a well-paying job that she loved. She went to conferences to learn about bipolar disorder, but found little solace. One speaker even attributed it to detached “refrigerator mothers,” as if she was to blame.

That’s what led Anderson and a like-minded mother to form the FORCE, which provided support, information, navigation and mentorship to families – and later, to youth and systems providers –
so they could work well together to enhance the mental health of children and youth.

“We don’t just come alongside young people and families, we come alongside service providers,” says Anderson. “We work with them rather than put them under fire. We’re not coming in and saying
‘You have to do FamilySmart® practice, or you have to have a PiR.’ We’re saying ‘Man, would we ever like to help you do the already amazing work that you’re doing, and here’s what we can offer.’”

With companies like Bell Canada raising awareness of mental health issues, Anderson says a growing number of organizations are reaching out to her to learn how to better support employees whose kids are struggling with mental health challenges.

Now, with FamilySmart® expanding its reach beyond B.C. for the first time, it’s conceivable it might one day expand nationwide.
“Our dream would be that we have FamilySmart® practice throughout our country,” she says. “But it takes time and patience.”

As for her son James, who is now 30, Anderson says the future couldn’t look any brighter. “He’s got a great job. He also has a girlfriend and they’re engaged to get married. It’s so awesome,
I’m just so happy for him. What a journey this has been.”