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Executive Director's Blog

Sarah Cannon

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Engaging Families and the Trust Required

Engaging Families and Those with Lived Experience

I have been asking myself of late why it may be difficult to engage a population for which so much help and change is needed in working together to achieve that change. It dawned on me recently what one of the major components of this apparent apathy may be, and I have also concluded that it is not at all apathy...that is what perhaps we tell ourselves so we do not have to look internally at we may be doing to cause this lack of engagement. At some recent meetings I attended I realized that I was feeling frustrated, emotionally drained, and some suggested angry. I am not sure I was angry - I think perhaps some of the topics at hand triggered some emotions from my own personal journey that I did not consider until I was reflecting on comments made to me and discussions about my reactions, and this started me thinking about when I react, how I react, and perhaps why I react, and whether or not my reactions are completely unfounded. I do this often as I recognize in myself that while my passion for change and the need for change, and the strong passionate desire to be a positive component of that change is often to my benefit - I have to be very careful to ensure that it is not as often a factor that will alienate potential allies. I admit I struggle with it, but also admit I am working on it. However, I will not work on it to the point where my passion is replaced by complacency, and while my passion sometimes lands me in uncomfortable situations, and finds me wanting to apologize, it is also a very key component of not only me, but of my personal journey and my unwavering commitment to ensuring change, without the passion I fear I would probably give up because it is that very passion that allows me to continue and remain rooted in the faith that there will be change. That is not to say that I will not always need to grow and cultivate my strengths and make sure I keep my weaknesses balanced and in check, and I am prepared to do that, and do sincerely try to learn from where my passion has lead me down a path that perhaps makes those I respect, and admire uncomfortable, it is never my intention, but unfortunately sometimes a bi-product of my passion.

That said, here is what I found on this particular retrospective journey I took inside myself, and the examination of why perhaps this environment is not too often seen as safe and comfortable for many to participate, and this is what I came to realize. As with all of my blog entries, I offer them all as comments, and observations, not as accusations, and not as statements that ALL people I have come into contact with are fundamentally flawed, it is just one perspective, and sometimes designed to be provocative to encourage discussion and comment. I am not of the belief that everyone must agree with me, and I am sometimes as comfortable with the discussions around why one may not agree with me, in fact, those have been the times when my mind has grown and I have learned the most, when I am presented with an opposite opinion that I must consider, and take into account as I continue on the journey.

Ok - I will now get to the point - if you have read any of my blogs, you know I often use metaphors to help illustrate my thoughts - so this particular blog I want you to think of bank accounts, investments, and what we expect from our investments, and the fact that any bank account is only beneficial if there is a positive balance. Bank accounts that show a deficit are no good to anyone, and in fact, can lead to problems in other areas of life. When we ask families, or those with lived experience to share their stories, to talk with us about their personal journeys, the deficits they have encountered, and the effects these deficits have had on their lives, we are asking them to contribute a large emotional investment to the "cause". I think that this is often times forgotten. We assume that everyone is ok with sharing their stories because we concentrate on the big picture - the positive impact on change we believe that asking them to share their story will have. As I noted above, sometimes this does come at an emotional cost, sometimes we have to relive pain that we worked very hard to get under control, and sometimes the process itself acts as a trigger for us that we do not even realize until it affects areas of our life that we had not anticipated, causing us perhaps further difficulty. Yet many continue to be willing to make these emotional investments. If a project required a financial investment, and sought funders, the funders would most definitely expect a return on that investment, at the very least visible deliverables or products that they could easily make the connection that their contributions assisted in making the project and its outcomes a reality. The project would be conducted with that in mind, with the accountability to the funders of the project, and an assumption that at some point the funders would expect and require a display illustrating the return on their investment. Ask yourself, have we operated in a way that provides the same accountability to those who have made emotional investments?

As a family member, and an active advocate for approximately a decade, I have recounted my story endless times, answered surveys, contributed to Round Tables, provided consultation and presentations, all with an unspoken understanding that my emotional investment and cost to myself will be rewarded in the dividend of change for our children. I was thinking about this, and I realized that for many many years the "system" has been conducting interviews, doing research, producing reports, and recommendations, and many people have probably told their story to the same people over and over again. Is this not one of the "system deficits" we are trying to change? As families seeking treatment for our children we are required to tell our stories over and over and over again, and this is one of the points that many of us make that needs to change, we need to find a better way, integration, better lines of communication so that this is not required of already stressed, overwhelmed, and marginalized families. Yet, we contribute to the same thing, we ask of people to recount their stories endless times in an effort to change things - and I think some, not all, but some, are at the point where they are asking themselves why? What is the point? What will retelling my story once more, reliving the pain once more, risking triggering an emotion that I have worked hard to contain, what will be the end benefit to change - what will be the return on my investment? Some have begun to doubt that the processes are actually going to be in the end productive or beneficial. And why shouldn't they doubt it? In I believe it was 1992 there was a Select Committee struck to address the Provincial crisis of Mental Health and Addictions. Consultations were held, a report with recommendations was produced. In 2009, A Select Committee on Mental Health and Addictions was struck to address the Provincial crisis of Mental Health in Ontario. Consultations were held, we have seen the interim report, and we await the final report and recommendations. I ask myself, how many people made public presentations to both those committees, how many people told their story in 1992, and then again in 2009, to basically a group designed to do the same thing. How many people thought in 1992 when they made their presentation it would contribute to action on the recommendations, and how many people were asked to again trust the same process and again make another emotional investment? To me it is a bit like going to a funder and saying "I know you gave us money and we didn't produce or act on what we had proposed, but honestly this time we will - can you please give us more money?" How many of us would number one have the gall to approach a funder like that, and how many funders would respond positively to such a request? Yet isn't that exactly what we are saying to so many who make such huge emotional deposits to our ventures, don't we in essence say to them "I know it is difficult, but we need to keep working on this until we get it right, and your stories are vital to our success". Perhaps we ask of this a bit lightly, perhaps we need to consider the return on the investment those we keep making withdrawals from have been offered, how many emotional deposits have been made to keep the balance positive - if you assess this and realize that the deposits indeed do not keep the balance positive, than perhaps that is a start to why it is difficult to engage and maintain engagement with such a core and key element to change.

"The people I distrust most are those who want to improve our lives but have only one course of action." Frank Herbert

Have we reached the point of distrust because those who are committed to change have only one course of action - and is that course of action truly action at all?

Add comment 2010-06-07 Sarah Cannon

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I really appreciated the help last nite.I knew who to call and your talk was very inspiring for the audience. You are changing peoples lives and helping move a tired system into … Marc Roberts, Executive Director, OECYC