By Jennifer Rosinski
Siblings of children with mental health needs who participate in the UMass Medical School Sibling Support Program show a decrease in their sense of isolation and shame, one of the initiative’s parent mentors, Leah Baigell, said at the Cambridge Health Alliance Art of Healing Fundraiser April 29.
“Living with brothers and sisters who have mental health challenges is especially traumatizing for the siblings, who simply don’t, by virtue of their age, have the bandwidth or sophistication in which to process the events taking place in their home,” said Baigell, who shared her personal story of raising two sons, one of whom has psychiatric needs and had been hospitalized at Cambridge Health Alliance.
“Our family was in crisis on many fronts. But most critically, we needed support for our older son Max, the typical sibling,” Baigell said. “The Sibling Support Program did not yet exist, but I, like thousands of other parents, would have benefited greatly if it had. It could have helped us all make sense of the chaos and confusion, and guilt and worry that defined our family life.”
The Sibling Support Program was one of five programs Cambridge Health Alliance selected to be featured during its annual fundraiser, which honored Michael and Kitty Dukakis at the Charles Hotel in Boston. The program has been running at Cambridge Health Alliance since November 2011, and since then has served more than 600 families at no cost. The program is also in place at Boston Children’s Hospital and implementation discussions are underway at Franciscan Hospital for Children.
“I am thrilled that Cambridge Health Alliance selected the Sibling Support Program to be featured at the Art of Healing Fundraiser,” said Emily Rubin, the creator and director of the Sibling Support Program at UMass Medical School’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center.
“Cambridge Health Alliance clearly understands the impact of mental illness on siblings, and their commitment to help build resiliency and decrease trauma among siblings is admirable,” said sibling researcher Rubin, who is also a lecturer in UMass Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry. “It's a pleasure and an honor to be in partnership with such a forward-thinking health care organization.”
The Sibling Support Program is an evidence-based, family-centered, mental health care initiative focused on improving outcomes for siblings of psychiatrically-involved children and adolescents. The program has four goals: building resiliency and decreasing trauma for siblings, stabilizing families by teaching parents strategies to support siblings, training psychiatric residents about best practices in delivering family-centered mental health care, and ultimately, reducing hospital admissions.
The program offers psycho-educational groups for parents at the hospital where their child has been admitted. Trained parent mentors, who themselves have children with mental health needs, educate caregivers about the impact of a child’s mental illness on siblings, introduce parenting strategies that build resiliency, and empower parents to access family stabilization resources. Simultaneously, in a nearby room, a psychiatry resident runs the sibling support groups where siblings meet peers who share similar challenges, have a safe place to process their trauma and learn coping skills.
Siblings of children with mental health needs struggle with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also at risk for developing maladaptive behaviors themselves.
Baigell knows from experience how true that is. Her younger son, Max, didn’t get much attention from she and her husband because her son with mental health needs, Zach, commanded all of their attention. “Max spent years walking on eggshells never knowing, from one minute to the next, if his brother was his best friend, or someone who was going to devastatingly lash out at him,” Baigell said.
Survey data indicates that siblings and parents benefit greatly from participating in the Sibling Support Program. The siblings develop an understanding that they are not alone and they are introduced to coping skills to better navigate their personal situations. Their parents and caregivers develop an understanding of what the siblings are experiencing to better address their needs.