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Family Support at Skyland Trail

June 18, 2011

It’s been more than four years since Don and Maryland McCarty’s son David received a diagnosis of schizophrenia, permanently altering the fabric of their close-knit family.

“We go from having a son who’s in college and who is going on a mission trip, to having a son who is—just one month later—always afraid and paranoid,” says Maryland McCarty. “It was a very rapid turnaround and it left us stunned, shocked, confused and frightened.”

The McCartys had no family history or experience with mental illness, and soon found they were navigating uncharted territory as they searched for ways to help David recover from his illness.

“We didn’t know what to expect and we certainly didn’t know what kind of journey we would be on,” says Don McCarty.

“I was totally confused,” adds Maryland, who initially thought her son would be better in a matter of weeks. “I didn’t understand what I was tackling.”

When David came to Skyland Trail in March 2007, Don and Maryland found the treatment they needed for him and soon realized they, too, were part of the Skyland community.

“We’re not just here for the individual with a mental illness, we’re here for their family and loved ones as well,” says Tara McDaniel, MS, LPC Skyland Trail’s family advocate. “Family members are often a significant part of a client’s support system, so it’s crucial the family is educated about the illness and its symptoms.”

To provide education about mental illness and recovery, Skyland Trail offers different levels of family therapy and support programming to make sure the family unit is treated in tandem with the client. One of the newest additions to the continuum of care is a one-day family orientation, coordinated by Admissions Director LaQuisha White MS, LPC.

“We know this process is stressful and that coming here is often the culmination of many smaller battles with mental illness,” White says. “Our orientation is a chance for the families of our clients to meet our treatment team and to learn about what their loved one will go through in recovery.”

By giving families practical information, the Skyland Trail team hopes to set a strong support structure in place from the very beginning.

“It is important for family members to have their own source of support during this difficult time,” says McDaniel. “We have both education and support for families available at Skyland Trail, so they can appropriately participate in their loved one’s recovery.”

The stress placed on family members and friends by a loved ones’ illness underscores the need for comprehensive treatment for the entire support system. Skyland Trail’s primary counselors will often incorporate family members into a client’s sessions, or arrange an appointment with family therapist Jill Rosenberg, LCSW.

“Supporting someone who has a chronic mental illness can be an overwhelming task,” Rosenberg says. “A major goal of family treatment is to understand the challenges the client is going through and help the family provide the best possible care for their loved one.

“Family therapy can be very challenging, but the rewards for participation can be tremendous.”

With their son in the residential treatment program at Skyland Trail South, the McCartys began participating in the Family Support, Training and Education Program (STEP) meetings. The once-a-week group gives family members a chance to learn more about mental illness from experts in the field, and also learn coping skills for themselves and their loved ones.

Maryland says she was also touched by the camaraderie she found at STEP, finding comfort and strength with others who were on a parallel path.

“It was a support group where people could share stories and you realize you’re around people who understand,” Maryland says. “STEP has outstanding speakers and is presented in an intimate environment, where you have an opportunity to learn and ask questions.”

Maryland says she appreciated being in a place where her story resonated with others and where she could get practical advice.

“Everything you thought was going to happen is unraveling, so it’s very helpful to have the correct information and knowledge of the disease and how to support your loved one.”

Don says the family support was crucial to give his family the tools necessary to move forward.

“Through education and support you transform, and you understand what you’re dealing with and you begin to realize different expectations need to be set for not only your loved one but also for yourself,” he says. “That’s comforting, once you realize a course of action.”

Providing families with that course of action is what the different family support programs at Skyland Trial aim to do— welcoming family involvement from the time of admission, to when a client has moved on in their recovery.

“The ultimate goal of family treatment is to encourage respect for a loved one’s struggle, promote a better understanding of their illness, provide new tools to empower the family to take better care of themselves and offer a clearer understanding of what can be done to promote a family’s overall wellness and recovery,” Rosenberg says.

Today, the McCarty’s speak of David’s many accomplishments since he has moved on from Skyland Trail. He’s now living in a group home and working at a food co-op in nearby Gwinnett County.

“It was lots of little steps. I can’t imagine doing it without the support of a facility like Skyland Trail. David wanted to be a minister and he is still serving others, but in a different way,” says Maryland. “And he sings in the choir at church.”

“Yes, there he is,” adds Don, “a person with schizophrenia front and center singing in the choir.

“I think Skyland Trail gave him a nice foundation to help deal with his illness. David will tell you he’s not the same person, he’s said that before. He’s acknowledged that to us and we know that. You have to have new dreams and expectations going forward and I tell him all the time, ‘I’m proud of you David.’”