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Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First: Family Coping Strategies at the Laurel House Family Seminar Series

oxygen mask

Last Thursday, families, friends and agency staff met at Laurel House to hear Licensed Clinical Social Worker Stephanie Raia speak on Family Coping Strategies in the fourth and final installment of the Family Seminar Series.

Stephanie opened her talk with two great quotes: the Serenity Prayer, which many of us associate with Alcoholics Anonymous, and the simple instruction we hear every time we take a commercial flight to “Put on your own oxygen mask first.”  This is a great metaphor for the topic of last Thursday’s talk on family coping strategies.  I take it to mean that you cannot effectively care for a loved one struggling with mental illness, without first tending to your own mental health care needs.

In keeping with the theme of self-care for caregivers, Stephanie started us off with a brief Stretch & Yawn exercise to put us in a relaxed and mindful mood.  She then described some best practices for clinicians working with the families of a loved one with a mental health condition:

    • Educate patients and their families about the illness, the course it may take, and how to treat or manage it (often referred to as “psychoeducation” and best provided in a one-to-one format).
    • Encourage a strong relationship between the clinician and family members.
    • Promote self-determination to ensure the patient has input into setting goals for treatment.
    • Teach family members to practice self-care and keep a sense of humor.

She followed with an explanation of Expressed Emotion (EE), a term clinicians use to describe the attitudes and feelings of family members towards their loved ones with mental illness.  The three dimensions of high EE are:

Hostility directed at the patient because the family feels the condition is controllable and the patient is choosing not to get better.

Emotional Over-involvement is driven by an underlying belief that the patient cannot do things for his or her self.

Critical Comments which indicate a hostile attitude toward the patient, despite a belief that the patient may not be responsible for his or her condition.

Families can reduce Expressed Emotions by educating themselves about their loved one’s condition and by learning to manage their own stress, so resentments do not build.  To that end, Stephanie led us in a short guided imagery relaxation exercise, which was the equivalent of a life restoring oxygen mask.

In conclusion, she left us with links to three great websites with resources and a focus on wellness, stress management and mindfulness, and led a great question and answer session:

Although this was the final session in the series, it will hopefully not be the last of the Family Seminars at Laurel House. One mother who attended told me it had given her hope, and several family members expressed the common feeling that there is a need for this kind of dialogue between families and mental health providers to continue.


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Jay Boll, Editor in Chief www.rtor.org