Published March 21, 2017
Volunteer writer Joyce Zhu recently spoke with Natalie Talson, the Team Leader of Child and Youth Services at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Vancouver - Fraser Branch. As Joyce found out, helping kids with mental health challenges – whether their own or a family member’s – requires patience and compassion. It also requires an understanding that, perhaps above all, kids deserve a chance to have fun.
“She might be my friendship soulmate,” one young girl said to Natalie Talson after a Pandemonium outing. She’d asked for another girl’s phone number, absolutely convinced that she’d found her other half at the ripe age of fifteen.
Reflect back at age fifteen, and try to remember. My memories are of seashells that carried the smell of the ocean (in a bad wtay) from my windowsill. Friends and photo booths, family and movie nights. Finding my “soulmate” and marrying him in my head, all that goodness. However, not everyone is as lucky. For youth struggling with either their own mental health or the mental health of their family, luck is sparsely rationed. This is where the Canadian Mental Health Association comes in.
The Canadian Mental Health Association
is Canada’s oldest mental health charity, making it a pioneer in the country’s diverse and vibrant non-profit sector. Every year its services reach out to over 100,000 Canadians in 135 communities with the help of 10,000 staff and volunteers. CMHA aims to promote mental health and support recovery and resilience, doing so in its resourceful and unique ways.
Recently, I met up with Natalie Talson, the Team Leader of Child and Youth Services at CMHA, Vancouver - Fraser Branch. There, she spoke to me about two of Child &Youth Programs offered at the branch: Super Fun Groups and Pandemonium.
Super Fun Groups
began sixteen years ago, in 2001, when parents with mental health challenges requested a way to take time off from their families for self-care and healing. Staff at CMHA took this request and created Super Saturday, a program offered specifically to children & youth aged 8 to 18 who have a parent with a mental illness.
“We wanted the parents to have a day of respite for their own self care, and to trust that their children are completely being taken care of all day,” said Natalie, summarizing the program.
With the generosity of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, public and private foundations and countless donors, Super Fun Groups take care of everything from the cost of meals and admission, to transportation to and from home. Activities are sweeping, ranging from horseback riding to kayaking, and the list only goes on.
For adults with mental illness, it may be difficult to support stable jobs, thereby making it difficult for kids in these families to afford the activities CMHA’s programs provide. Incorporating principles of Attachment Theory and with staff participating alongside, these kids, while away from their families, are able to benefit from the relationships they build with staff and peers within their Super Fun Group. With a focus on the importance of play, kids are able to have simple, unadulterated fun, which, ultimately, is what each kid deserves.
One testimonial stated jokingly, “I love it because it gives me a break from my crazy family,” although the difference Super Fun Groups make is no joke -- with a 100% satisfaction rating, it is easy to get an idea of how big
the difference is.
As of 2017, six Super Fun Groups co-exist, running Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, once each per month. Based on the benefit these groups are having in their community, one hopes to see their numbers increase. Participants from Richmond are referred by Supporting Families affected by Parental Mental Illness and/or Substance Use and who attend a Resilient Kids group.
Pandemonium, on the other hand, is geared towards youth aged 13 to 17 who are living with anxiety.
“It’s okay, anxiety is allowed,” said Natalie with a smile. “At Pandemonium, anxiety is allowed.”
Pandemonium was created in collaboration with Hamber House. As a one-year program, Pandemonium aims to encourage social engagement and among youth with anxiety.
The group is made up of thirteen youth, accompanied by two to three staff during each outing. Referrals from Hamber House’s Adolescent Day treatment program are prioritized, although if there is additional space, community referrals are accepted as well. Currently, only one Pandemonium group is running in Vancouver and is heavily waitlisted. A second Pandemonium group started in Burnaby in 2015 and is currently almost full as well.
When asked her for her happiest
moment when working with either program, Natalie responded, “When I see kids helping each other.” Natalie spoke of one instance where a boy was having an especially difficult day. Initially the other kids in the group were frustrated with his behaviour, but after a quick discussion with staff they were able to have empathy for his struggle. One kid said, “You know, I think he is trying his best, normally he is so funny. Today is just a bad day, we all have bad days.”
And this is the cornerstone of what Super Fun Groups do by helping to build resiliency in children. Some of these kids have been unsuccessful in many other community groups, but Super Fun Groups works with them to build their strengths and overcome any obstacles to participating and connecting in the group.
Touching upon the topic of anxiety in today’s youth, Natalie stressed the importance of pattern disruption. “Treatments are always so single-focused. Pattern disrupting is effective, and humour is a great technique to assist people.” Natalie recalled a little girl saying to her older sister with anxiety, “Remember, smell the flower and blow out the candle,” to help her sister breath normally whenever she was feeling anxious. Natalie found methods like these very sweet, but also very powerful.
Natalie also commented about anxiety itself. “It’s there for a reason,” she said. “Getting afraid of [anxiety] exacerbates it. Learning to be more gentle with ourselves with it and with each other is important.” Natalie commended mindfulness practices and breathing, because at the end of the day, “Stress is stressful. We need to escape the stress sometimes.” And I couldn’t agree more.
The work CMHA is doing in our community has a deep impact, which might not always be apparent to the naked eye. But that’s only because they do it so well. Youth programs appear to be nothing more than kids on a field trip, because above mental illness, they are kids, on a field trip like any other.
Beyond Child and Youth Programs, CMHA offers services for adults and seniors alike, and support for housing. More information can be found on their website
CMHA’s vision is clear: mentally healthy people in a healthy society. For youth, this may involve seashells and soulmates. This
is where the Canadian Mental Health Association comes in.