Building Bridges: a Family Welfare Association project for children with parents who have mental health problems

The woman in the drawing (right) might be smiling, but her son knows she’s unhappy. When asked about the insects in his drawing, nine-year-old Jake says they are his mother’s “depression flies”. The buzzing of a mental illness is loud enough to be heard by children.

Despite the obvious links between parental mental health and child welfare, Rose de Paeztron, head of the Family Welfare Association’s (FWA) strategic development unit, says children are often invisible to adult services.

“No end of professionals traipse through the house but no one explains to the child what’s going on,” she says. This problem, she adds, works both ways as children and family workers are wary of becoming enmeshed in mental health issues.

As the name suggests, Building Bridges aims to connect these social service specialisms. Run by FWA, the project has 12 branches across England offering practical and emotional home and centre-based support to families with children of any age, where a parent has significant mental health issues. The project supports the whole family, both as a unit and as individuals, to address the needs of parent and child.

The branches’ small size gives them flexibility, allowing services to be tailored to suit the particular needs of the families in question. “The main thrust when dealing with anyone with complex needs is to start with the particular anxieties they might have,” says de Paeztron, “It might mean giving them practical help at tea time, or getting the kids to school, or liaising with the community and other services.”

So many problems

Simone Margai, who suffers from depression, has been a Building Bridges client for more than a year. When she first came to the service, Margai was living with a violent husband while caring for her elderly mother and five-year old daughter.

“I had so many problems I didn’t know where to start,” she says. “I found managing the house difficult, I kept forgetting things and the problems were building up.” Her depression began to affect her relationship with her daughter. “I tried to do my best, to make sure she didn’t see I was vulnerable, but she could feel it.”

After assessing her situation, Building Bridges put Margai in touch with a counsellor and arranged regular meetings with one of their family service co-ordinators, Pamela Shepherd, who was able to visit Margai in her own home.

“I worked with Pamela to get a grant to fix my washing machine and discuss how to tackle my issues,” Margai recalls.

She says that Building Bridges has helped improve her relationship with her daughter: “Sometimes my daughter had these moods and Pamela helped me approach her. Now if something worries me about my daughter, we see what’s appropriate together.”

Taking small steps early on has a much bigger impact than one might think, as it can often prevent a family from slipping into child protection territory. This is particularly important, given that more formal services can sometimes worsen the problems they are trying to alleviate. The anxiety that a child might be taken away can be detrimental to a parent’s self-esteem and exacerbate the mental health issue at hand.

Smooth transition

Where other services do need to become involved, Building Bridges can ensure that the transition is a smooth one for example by attending first appointments to increase a parent’s sense of security. Indeed, one of Building Bridges’ main roles is not to provide services per se, but to plug those who are isolated into mainstream institutions. As de Paeztron puts it: “We don’t duplicate other services – we work with them.”

Of course building bridges is never easy. Funding is often hard to come by as responsibility falls into the very gap between services that the organisation is trying to bridge, leaving some clients waiting for home support for several months. Building Bridges is taking steps to tackle the funding deficit by conducting evaluations into its effectiveness to show to potential investors. “Our evaluation is an important resource,” says de Paeztron. “We can take it to funders and say ‘Do more of this’.”

The human stories – as well as the numbers – are testament to Building Bridges’ success. Margai has now separated from her violent partner and, although the buzzing of the depression flies may not have disappeared completely, they seem to be getting quieter. “Working with Pamela has opened doors for me,” she says. “There are still problems – I’m still a single mum – but I’m putting hope in my vocabulary now.”

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● Don’t be afraid of taking small steps – they can make a tangible difference and prevent more drastic actions being taken later on.

● Stay needs-led and client focused.

● Work with other services – don’t duplicate them.

● Friendliness can be as important as professionalism in building trust.

● Keep flexible – Family Welfare Association stops and starts group sessions according to client demand, and stays in contact with parents in a variety of different ways including via text.

● Monitor your progress – this can help improve services and secure more funding.


This article appeared in the 14 February issue under the headline “Keeping the flies away”



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