Living with a mentally ill parent

Two UVic students are putting the power of shared experience to work next term with an innovative pilot program aimed at youth in the greater Victoria community.

Undergraduate students Lilia Zaharieva and Rachel Winter will be working with the BC Schizophrenia Society (BCSS) in January to create and co-facilitate a psycho-educational support group for teenagers living with parents who suffer from mental illness.

“I think this program is really exciting because it will empower the youth involved to become a major part of their own healing process,” says Winter, who is currently completing her third-year practicum for her child and youth care degree with the BCSS.

Both students had been looking to get involved with the BCSS, but it wasn’t until BCSS Executive Director Hazel Meredith handed Zaharieva a copy of Michelle D. Sherman’s book, I’m Not Alone that she knew where she fit in as a volunteer with the organization.

“It happened so organically—I had a look through the book and it said everything that I could have wanted to hear as a child growing up with a mentally ill parent,” says Zaharieva, a third-year English and philosophy student. “As soon as I finished this book I knew I wanted to share the ideas in it with a larger community.”

Zaharieva began research for a program proposal and discovered that somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent of all teenagers live in homes with a family member who has a mental illness. She also read that this particular age group of youth is at high risk for developing mental illness themselves due to both genetics and usually unstable home environments.

“Right now there’s no direct support for this group of teenagers in Victoria or even on Vancouver Island,” says Zaharieva. “In fact, there are barely any resources of this type available in Canada.

“My main goal is to raise awareness, because people don’t talk directly about how mental illness affects youth and yet it’s so common—it blows me away what a difference the concept of shared experience makes.”

With the author’s permission, Zaharieva and Winter repurposed the topics covered in Sherman’s book into eight weeks of supportive, pro-active curriculum that will culminate in a group rock climbing session.

“We’ll be covering topics that explore feelings, self-care strategies, safety plans and communication strategies,” explains Winter.

The pilot program will be run out of the BCSS office and is open to all youth living with parents who have mental health issues—although the material covered focuses on coping tools common to families affected by schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and chronic depression.

“This group will give five to eight youths a safe space to process their thoughts in an environment that is about them rather than their parents,” says Winter. “It will help these teens break the stigma around mental illness by learning how to educate their friends and others about their experience.

“Many are already little parents themselves, so this program is also a chance for these youth to have fun and just be their age.”

January’s pilot program received a $1,200 grant from the Queen Alexandra Foundation for Children’s youth-initiative committee and a tremendous amount of support from high school counsellors in the Greater Victoria area.

For more information or to get involved, contact the BC Schizophrenia Society: 250-384-4225 or


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Keywords: students, create, support, progr

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