Updated: Oct 28, 2020
During the fall semester, I interned with PA Parent and Family Alliance for Children's Services as well as made it the focus of my senior thesis. Interning with the organization offered insight into what a family-run organization is, how it operates, and just how beneficial it can be to those it helps. Another unique aspect of my internship was joining a program that was brand new and had to be built from the ground up. In just one semester I saw them grow from having no logo, website, or social media, to one with a flourishing state-wide presence that supports families and spreads awareness of both mental health difficulties, and the vast benefits of providing a lived experience perspective for family support. Making PA Parent and Family Alliance and the work I have done for and with them my senior project allowed me to take what I have learned and teach my professors and peers about the work of family-run programs and mental health advocacy.
When I first proposed my project idea to my professor he told me; “to be honest I don’t know what a family-run support program is, but I know how important mental health awareness is, and I am excited to learn more”. This is the first thing I found out during my research and time with PA Parent and Family Alliance. Not enough people have heard about family-run program services. I decided to make this the focus of my project and show how family-run programs are both underfunded and under-utilized.
It's important to note that PA Parent and Family Alliance does not recognize just one "type" of family. They know that the term family means so many different things to so many people and all they deserve support. An emphasis on diversity and inclusion is something that PA Parent and Family Alliance want to advocate for, always.
I thought it was essential to include not only the benefits of peer to peer support that family-run programs offer but also awareness of mental health issues itself. This country has been riddled with the stigma surrounding mental health and it has caused a lot of people, and families to feel ashamed of mental health challenges they or their children have. In my interview and blog post with Allegheny Family Network CEO, Ruth Fox, she discussed that her experience with providers and the legal system would have benefited from a peer support partner, what she would have absolutely loved was having someone who just understood her journey. She went on to say that a lot of people made her feel like it was her fault that her child had mental health difficulties, and now she works to make sure parents don't feel that way anymore.
While interning with PA Parent and Family Alliance I learned that lived experience and peer to peer support was far from a new concept. The only "new" thing was getting systems and lawmakers to recognize the need for families to be supported and that a child having a mental difficulty impacts the entire family. A number of programs already utilize the peer-to-peer support method, most notably AA. The sponsor-sponsee relationship is essential in obtaining and maintaining sobriety. Other industries that use this organizational set up includes adult mental health, inmate mental health, and substance abuse support. PA Family Alliance, AFN, and every single family-run, mental health program around the country are working to have people acknowledge the impact a child's mental health has on their caregivers (and siblings) and appreciate the benefits a peer-to-peer support system can have on those families.
My first and most notable project included reviewing the PA Mental Health Consent Law (PA Act 147) and creating an easy read and understand document so families and young adults can better understand their legal rights when dealing with both inpatient and outpatient treatment. It was distributed through PA Parent and family Alliance's very first newsletter and was very well received by Pennsylvania's mental health community. If you would like to access the downloadable document or the Spanish version click here.
My work included interviewing and write about mental health pioneers, parent advocates, policymakers, and people who have experienced mental health difficulties, and witnessed the benefits of peer to peer support. These blog posts helped to shed light on some amazing individuals and have hopefully inspired some readers to feel less alone, and more empowered to get involved in peer to peer mentoring and leadership.
During the final presentation, I was really able to help make people aware of the work that PA Parent and Family Alliance for Children's Service is doing. It astounded me that not one of the peers, professors, or parents that I presented my project to had ever heard of a mental health family-run organization. However, what I was not shocked by was that every single one of them was delighted to hear that something like this existed, and wanted to hear more.
I looked at a mother's face when I described to her the kind of work PA Parent and Family Alliance, and AFN is doing and saw her eyes light up, saying that this is "a beautiful way of connecting people over something that makes people feel so isolated". People were moved by the stories of parents like Ruth Fox, and by the end of the presentation, they agreed that everybody needs to know about family support programs and more people need to utilize this type of service.
My semester working with and researching mental health family-run programs has been enlightening, to say the least. I have learned so much from families who have raised children with mental, emotional, behavioral, and social difficulties and are now using their life experiences to help those in similar situations. Having the opportunity to teach others about family support programs has allowed me to not only learn more about them but also witness people who before our conversation had never heard of them, soon realize that this kind of service is vital. I have learned from so many of the strong and empowering family members I have interviewed that every little bit helps and nobody is "just one person".
For more information on internship opportunities with PA Parent and Family Alliance for Children's Services email firstname.lastname@example.org