Since 1981, La Boussole has been helping the loved ones of people with mental illness. The organization serves the greater Québec City area with members from Val-Bélair, Beauport or even la Côte-de-Beaupré, for example. Originally a peer support group made up of care-giving close relatives who are short on resources and wanting to break the isolation, the organization has gradually expanded its services.
Hélène Lévesque is the organization’s Director, and her team includes the clinical coordinator of the Children and Youth Program. Julie Belleau explains to us the nature of her work. She says that there are many mental health disorders, and a diagnosis is sometimes difficult to obtain. People who have a disorder often live in denial. That’s why La Boussole responds to requests without a diagnosis being absolutely necessary. It’s enough if the disorder is obvious and if the individual or a member of their family is experiencing some degree of distress in dealing with the situation.
Within the organization, FDG supports activities intended for children and teens. In the summertime, a summer day camp is provided for children, over a seven (7)-week period for four (4) days a week. On weekdays, La Boussole takes in twenty-four (24) children as a closed group and transports them to La Boussole’s premises in Limoilou. We have fun with topic-based activities that change as the weeks go by, while addressing the difficulties that the children are experiencing. They are coached by three specialized outreach workers who provide personalized follow-up to each child. As needed, the children are met with individually to identify certain difficulties and to set small objectives. That way, the young person’s progress is more clearly seen.
In workshops, we cover illness-related problems, emotion management, existing resources, and many other topics (interpersonal relationships, ways to take care of one’s own mental health, problem-solving strategies, biases, etc.) Individual work is always aligned with group work. Theatre, journal-writing or arts projects will be some of the methods used to encourage self and group expression. In addition to these more specific activities, there are outings and outdoor games. Occasionally, guests are brought in to run specialized workshops such as animal therapy, laughter therapy, healthy eating. One day a week is always devoted to a special outing that teens are invited to: a movie, a museum visit, an adventure course, etc.
Living with a relative who has a mental illness sometimes has major impacts on children and teens. At La Boussole, we make sure that the young person is put back into their role as a child and not make him/her feel responsible for his/her family member’s illness. We tell them about the biology and chemistry of the disorder within their family; we direct them to existing resources in the event of a crisis; we identify along with them what helps make them feel better; we ask them about their support network. Also, we don’t want to demonize the illness, and we make them understand that, even if they themselves may exhibit problems, because that’s a very real fear, it’s not the end of the world—there are ways to regain control over their lives, despite the illness. In short, we seek to restore their confidence.
Beyond the disorder or the illness, the young person has strengths and weakness. They need to be taught how to recognize them. The illness must not be used as a defence to justify a certain behaviour. The young person must not identify with only that. We seek to develop his/her responsibility towards his/her own condition and increase his/her power to act: “You may not have taken your medication today, but what can you do to help calm you down; what makes you feel better in this situation?” »
At the end of the camp, an overnight for the children outside the daily routine helps close the loop and recap the learnings from the summer. For teens, we also devote a two (2)-night outdoor healing session. During that, we work on the challenges that the teens are facing: team spirit, personal journey and healing.
At La Boussole, we try as much as possible to work together with the family as a whole. But sometimes it’s hard to establish physical contact: since families come from all areas of Quebec and the children are transported to La Boussole usually by school bus, contact is sometimes limited to phone conversations. That limitation is partially overcome by offering a family day in February at the Valcartier Vacation Village. That enables the young people and their family members, coached by workers, to have a day outdoors having fun. For the workers, that activity enables them to witness first-hand the existing relationships within the family and to create stronger trust relationships along with them.
Lastly, as the Christmas and New Year’s holidays approach, we invite the children and teens to a party. This year, it was at the Aquarium du Québec, which hosted 25 young people for a brunch, games and a guided tour.
Mental health problems affect all members of a family. They can lead to a separation or, conversely, be triggered by the break-up of the family unit. Economically vulnerable families are definitely those who turn to La Boussole the most, and single-parent families more often experience poverty-related instability. This sometimes places the burden of mental illness on slender shoulders.
La Boussole’s services are intended for all members of a family dealing with mental health disorders. The activities run throughout the year, limited only by financial resources that limit the number of workers available and the number of people that the site can accommodate. La Boussole is part of the Avant de craquer network, which combines multiple organizations throughout the province of Quebec that work with the loved ones and friends of someone who has a mental health problem.
Among the many services provided, such as 24/7 phone support, the helping relationship, peer support groups, fact sheets, and plenty more, La Boussole helps a growing number of individuals wanting to obtain a requisition for a psychiatric assessment for one of their relatives. Some people who are dealing with this type of problem and are in denial become dangerous to themselves or to others. Their loved ones often need accompaniment for taking this difficult step because it forces hospitalization of the person in question, the time for an assessment, and it’s often done in an emergency. This accompaniment service is provided free of charge and is consuming more and more time from the organization, which has seen requests of this type increase from roughly 30 to 90 requests a year, in just a few years.
Lastly, La Boussole’s workers are definitely seeing more addictions to electronic devices among children and, as a result, serious lacks in their social skills. By intervening directly to develop their ability to act, their interpersonal skills and managing their emotions, La Boussole is succeeding in getting a hold on the critical ingredients for young people’s well-being and developing their full potential. And FDG considers it important to support their efforts in that regard.