“What is the experience of being a parent that has a mental illness?”
Evan Kaplan wants to help people answer this question. After wrestling with his own mental health challenges and the needs of his young daughter, Evan founded an organization called Child and Family Connections, a non-profit in Philadelphia that is dedicated to supporting families living with parental mental health challenges.
This month (starting September 23, 2014) Child and Family Connections offers a free course for parents with a mental illness who have teenage children. The course was designed in collaboration with Temple University’s Collaborative for Community Inclusion. The curriculum is research-based, and incorporates work that’s been done at Harvard, Dartmouth, UCLA, and UMass around parental mental health. Research shows that early intervention programs can really make a big impact in the resiliency of both the family and the children.
OC87 Recovery Diaries’ Glenn Holsten spoke with Evan recently about his organization, the power of the workshop, the stigma and pain that silence can cause, and Evan’s inspiration for his groundbreaking work (hint: her name is Charlotte).
THE POWER OF COMMUNCATION
Glenn Holsten: What happened at that first program in 2012?
Evan Kaplan: It was just moving, it was a chance for parents to learn some very practical skills that they could go home with each night after the class and try out with their family and with their children. Things around communication, the types of information that you should share that’s age-appropriate with children, and emotional validation, and emotion regulation of their own feelings when they’re triggered in conversations during talking. The goal was to get them talking to their kids about their mental health.
Glenn Holsten: Is that to give them vocabulary? Why do you need a class like this?
Evan Kaplan: There’s a lot of reasons — one, surprisingly or unsurprisingly, it’s not a topic that most of us want to broach with our kids. And a lot of it comes from our own sense of guilt. It comes from the stigma associated with mental health. It comes from generations of silence that we learn from our family that it’s not okay to talk about these things.
But when we look at what the research is beginning to demonstrate, it’s almost the opposite of that: the simple act of talking and being open is a relationship builder and a strength builder, and becomes a very positive anchor in the relationship between parents and children. And that’s something that I’ve learned in my own personal experience with my daughter Charlotte. Any relationship has so much to do with communication. And if you’re not able to communicate, it’s hard to get past that first step.
So we look at the workshop as an opportunity to learn what are important messages for children and parents, and how to repair or rebuild a relationship that may have been impacted or damaged from the parent’s mental health.
We found that most parents don’t want to talk about this with their kids. It’s a really tough subject. There’s a lot of feeling about needing to apologize for themselves and you know parentalization issues and all kinds of things.
But once that communication opens up — and we’ve seen it in the workshop time and time again — the relationship begins to change rather dramatically in very, very short order.
Watch “Learning How To Talk,” in which Evan Kaplan documented his journey with his daughter, Charlotte, as part of the OC87 Recovery Diaries/WHYY video diary project.
Glenn Holsten: What are your opening words to participants? What do you say to participants at the start? How do you manage their expectation?
Evan Kaplan: We want parents to feel safe. And a lot of folks don’t because statistically — and it’s very, very common — people with mental health challenges are prone to losing custody of their children in exponentially larger numbers than the general population. A lot of people who are coming to our workshop have had run-ins or they’ve had situations with child protective services or the court system where they’ve lost custody of their children. In some cases, they still don’t have custody of their children and are trying to get them back. And so there’s a lot of fear. And so the first thing we want to do is create an atmosphere of comfort and trust. Having peer specialists who have lived any of the same experiences as the parents themselves begins to create that safe environment.
And then we want to talk about what we hope we will achieve, and that is an impact in their relationship. Bottom line is we want them to have a better relationship with their family. And there are many, many different ways of getting there and this is what we tell participants, “Some of what we teach you’re gonna want to use, and some of it you may not be comfortable with, and some of it requires skills that take time to develop and practice. So have patience, don’t be hard on yourself. Be gentle, and have some fun with it.”
We also try to create an environment that’s interactive, that’s dynamic, and creates a sense of community. Parents with a serious mental illness don’t have a sense of community. There’s no “Association of Parents with Mental Illness.” There’s just no place for them to go and share experiences, so the classroom becomes that opportunity. We see relationships in the classroom begin to develop and we want to foster them.
We also try to share the message of sensitivity. We know these are difficult topics, that they’re fraught with a lot of emotion, and they can be triggering to people. As somebody tells one story, it often times triggers somebody else’s situation or memories. And so it’s emotional.
But we want people to feel whatever it is that they’re feeling and not be ashamed or feel that they need to hide. And if they want support in any number of ways, we’re there to also provide it. One of the responsibilities of our facilitators is to be available to the participants outside of the classroom in the same way that they would if they were certified peer specialists working for a behavioral health organization, in that a parent who may be having a tough time or have questions can pick up the phone and call that facilitator and spend some time and talk.
Glenn Holsten: I imagine that there are not many places where parents with mental challenges can get together and say, “This is my lived experience, what’s yours?” and have sort of a sounding board to confirm the validity of their experience.
A PIONEERING PROGRAM
Evan Kaplan: Insofar as I know, Child and Family Connections is one of the only programs – if not the only program of it’s type — that’s really dedicated to parental mental health as an early intervention, and to building resiliency in the relationship with their family and with their kids.
We’re in a nascent field, which is surprising to me, even now, as I learn more and more about the field, and about mental health and my own mental health. Of the many millions of adults with mental illness, somewhere in the ballpark of 65 percent are mothers, and something like 52 percent are fathers. So you’re talking about a very, very large population. And at the same time, there are very few services in the mental health field that are dedicated to the fact that these folks are parents.
If you ask a person “How do you define yourself?” or “Who are you?” many times the first thing they’ll say is “I’m a parent.”
And so when providers don’t recognize or acknowledge this aspect as a really important integral aspect of who that person is, they’re not recognizing the individual. They become just another person in the process.
A lot of providers even now are hesitant to ask, and don’t have the system in place, to support parents. They don’t want to know because for them it often opens up a Pandora’s box where they can’t provide the services that are necessary with the issues and challenges of being a parent.
Glenn Holsten: Are there any specifics you can share with me, or is there an example of something you tackle during the course that’s speaks to a problem shared by parents with mental health challenges?
BREAKING THE SILENCE
Evan Kaplan: One of the big challenges is triggering our own emotions in the course of working with and talking to our children about our health.
Kids’ reactions can be stressful. There’s a lot of trepidation on the part of the parents to really open up about something that they’ve been so secretive about in the past, so we teach emotion regulation, which involves a lot of relaxation and a lot of grounding skills, so that when they are triggered, they have some resources and tools that they can use to get them back on track. That’s one issue.
The other is stigma. Across the board — it doesn’t matter what your culture looks like or the differences or the similarities — stigma is the most pervasive issue that holds back people with mental illness from getting the services that they really need and that would be of great benefit, even when they’re available for free.
So it’s not necessarily just a question of “Is there a service out there that can provide support?” or “Can I access it from a financial standpoint?” Oftentimes the answer is “Yes,” but the stigma of having a mental illness and the stigma that translates to the family members is so prohibitive and so restrictive for people.
And as time develops, it gets more and more difficult to break that bond of silence. Sometimes older parents in the program have more difficulty opening up and overcoming stigma because it’s so deeply ingrained in who they are. We want to give them tools and information and resources, not just to help them overcome stigma, but also to help their children deal with it as well.
We find that a lot of the kids whose parents are in the program are ashamed themselves and are carrying a lot of the same burden of not wanting people to know that their parent has a mental health challenge, and they go to very great lengths to hide it. For a lot of the kids that means isolating, it means making excuses for the parents. Even to the extent that they call the parent’s employer to say that the parent can’t come in to work that day. We work on a lot of issues around kids and the things that they go through and helping parents understand it from the children’s perspective as well.
Glenn Holsten: Are children part of the workshop?
Evan Kaplan: They are. For the final class this summer we had the parents bring their teenagers to the class and the parents worked on a map — it’s an art project that they were doing throughout the course of the workshop that was creative in that [it] represented the journey that they were on or had taken or were about to take in building the relationship with their family and how it related to themselves and how it related to their mental health. The parents did their presentations with the kids and the kids got a chance to come up and talk a little bit about their parents and what their experiences were like. It was really successful and something that we want to continue with.
Glenn Holsten: That sounds really terrific because then they have the shared experience to take home, and it’s not just something that happened to mom or dad while she or he was out of the house.
Evan Kaplan: I think it’s important for children to see that the parents are working on these issues and have the children’s best interests at heart, because when you have mental illness a lot of times it manifests itself in ways that sends really the opposite message. By having kids come in to the classroom and seeing and hearing and touching the things that parents are working on, they see some of the challenges that the parents are dealing with and it becomes more of a shared collaborative effort. There’s a lot more empathy and a lot more sympathy and a lot more mutual understanding and caring that happens just [as] a result of being part of that process.
Glenn Holsten: You really are pioneering a new kind of thing here that’s very bold and honest. Where do you look for your inspiration?
Evan Kaplan: Good question. I’m inspired by my own relationship with my daughter, Charlotte. That was really the catalyst for starting the nonprofit. We worked on building our relationship back after many, many years of silence on my part and she worked equally hard at it as well. When she came to me and said “Dad, I wish there were other kids that I could talk with who have a parent with mental illness,” I swung into action. I was unable to find anything else in the country. Really nothing existed. Certainly not in Philadelphia.
I was very fortunate to find an old resource on the web that was sort of lingering out there and I located the person who had developed [it] at the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Edie Mannion, and together we decided that we would build something using Charlotte’s story and my story as the foundation. But what inspires me is the impact that Charlotte’s very innocent and very heartfelt and honest request has had on other people’s lives.
It’s really been a spark — other families have heard the story, it’s resonated with them, and sometimes for the first time they’ve said, “You know what? I want to make a change in our lives, too.”
And none of that would have happened for me if it weren’t for Charlotte. She was my saving grace at a very low point in my life, and she was the inspiration for my recovery. Even now that she’s 13 and this is many years later, she’s still my inspiration.
We are going through a lot of changes in our relationship now that she’s a young teenager and I’m learning a lot from her about what she needs and how I need to change, and how our relationship needs to change as a result of her very honest communication and feedback to me.
And I’m proud of her. You know, she’s my shining north star.
Glenn Holsten: Fantastic. I am a father to a 14-year-old, and I completely understand about the changing chemistry of a relationship as the child gets older. It’s completely amazing.
Evan Kaplan: It is. And I’ve got an interesting element in my own story right now.
I gave up some custodial time with Charlotte when I made the decision to take on the job with Child and Family Connections and take a very big pay cut. I essentially downsized all aspects of my life to the point where I took an apartment that was a one-room studio and it wasn’t really conducive to having a growing young woman or young girl living with me, and so I really just saw Charlotte on a more limited basis after many years of having a lot more time with her.
I have now transitioned yet again into another stage of my life where I’m in a living situation that’s a lot more comfortable and a lot more suited for her where she can have personal privacy and do the things that teenagers want to do — like have friends over and hang out and all of that — I’ve gotten a lot of resistance from her mother who had become very comfortable in the arrangement that we had had previously.
So long story short, I am in a situation where I am again in some respects fighting for more time with Charlotte, and mental health has become a — I guess — a central issue within this transition or change in our lives.
We’re going through a difficult time, in a lot of respects. There’s a lot of turmoil. Some of it was a result of conversations that I’ve had with Charlotte recently. As we moved into sort of a new stage, as she’s gotten older, I felt it was time to tell her and share with her some information that was a little more detailed than what she had been told or what we have talked about in years past.
We had a very difficult, painful heart wrenching conversation with a lot of tears from both of us, and we’re still dealing with the aftermath of that and I think it’s shaken things up a bit.
And so I have some experience that I’m going through now that I don’t have a great grasp of, I’m sort of in the midst of it and can’t see the forest through the trees. But I think ultimately it will be a wonderful learning experience for me and I’m hoping at some point down the road when I can make more sense of it, it will be a learning experience for other people as well.
And it sounds weird, but it’s also inspiring for me. It is teaching me that I can’t be stagnant and I can’t simply be content. Our relationship needs to evolve and we need to take some chances and we need to trust each other, and it’s not always going to be peaches and roses.
Glenn Holsten: Sounds like you’re taking steps to be fully honest with her.
Evan Kaplan: I wouldn’t even say so much that it’s honesty, it’s appropriateness. There’s certain information that isn’t appropriate — and probably isn’t healthy — to share with a younger child. But as the child gets older they have a right, and I think it’s respectful to share truth. And the truth may not be the most positive or joyous aspects of people’s lives. But in order for her and I to really connect, she has to know who I am, and I have to be honest about it. I think that this is the kind of thing that’s going to happen throughout our lives over time. We will get to know each other better and I’ll share more information when I feel it is appropriate and that she can handle.
A JOURNEY FOR PURPOSE AND MEANING
Glenn Holsten: Evan, what did keep you busy before this project? What was your line of work and what changes did you make?
Evan Kaplan: I was a headhunter. I owned a couple of companies over the last 10 or so years. I had a partnership for about seven or eight years prior to getting involved with Child and Family Connections. I was successful in my career in many ways, financially. But I was really never fully happy, and I never felt genuine. I felt like I would go to work and I was in a role.
I went through a difficult time in 2012 where I was back in the hospital and I had some mental health challenges. I came out of that period, and I decided that this is the time that I really needed to be authentic and truthful to myself, and economics and money and all those things kind of be damned! I’m going to do what it is that I think I was really put here to do, and that is to share my experience. And so I went through a bankruptcy, I downsized, I moved into the studio. Our lives really got turned upside down. But my goal was to do something that really connected me with people and use my lived experience as a way of doing that. It’s been the smartest, wisest decision I’ve ever made because I feel like I’m now really truly who I am. And I found that people really respond to it. When you’re honest and truthful to yourself, it comes out in ways that people connect to and connect with, and that’s really when opportunities really open up.
And so even living in a very small shoebox with very little money and living off of disability income, I was happier than I’ve ever been in my life. And I learned to live with a lot less, and at the same time, had a lot more in my life that was of importance.
BUILDING ON SUCCESS
Glenn Holsten: This is a remarkable thing you’re doing. I think there must be a need for this kind of course all over the country and all over the world. Are there people looking at you as a model? I hope so.
Evan Kaplan: They are. I went to an international conference on parenting with mental health challenges in Berkeley last year. There were people from all over the world — Pakistan, Thailand, Brazil, the Netherlands, I mean from all walks of life, mostly academics and professionals and researchers and administrators and policy makers. There were so few organizations and people from the United States. Of the 300 or so people that were there, 30 organizations represented in all of the US, which really just speaks to the fact that we’re doing very little around this issue. As great of an issue as it is.
We’re in the middle of what I would call an endemic crisis, where the social fabric is breaking down and we don’t have the health support to help people thrive, and help communities thrive, and family is at the core of that. So there’s a lot we can learn from other countries like Australia and Finland and the UK and Canada. Countries who are more focused and have more funding behind this in the field and are a couple of years ahead of us in terms of their knowledge and resources.
There’s a distinct need in this country and we’re getting a lot of attention and we’re getting a lot of professional interest in what we’re doing and interest in taking our program to different places.
What’s really exciting for us next is that we are developing a US coalition of providers and professionals focused on parental mental health, and Child and Family Connections is one of the leading organizations as part of that. Our hope is to develop a professional association and a clearinghouse, a knowledge depository of all things about parental mental health, and use that information as a feeder back to the research community and then also begin to offer training and professional development opportunities. So we’re at a very early stage in all of this, and it’s exciting, and we’re making a lot of mistakes, but we’re learning a lot along the way and I know it will be really helpful, hopefully not just for us, but for others down the road.
For information about Child and Family Connections, or the workshop for parents living with a mental health challenge, contact Child and Family Connections.