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Strengthening Students Together on Campus

A school assignment is what brought Lauren Baumken to her first Strengthening Families Together (SFT) session. She was working on her Masters of Social Work at the University of Toronto and was researching the different kinds of supports available to families. Though she has a family member living with schizophrenia, she had never heard about the four-week education and support group for family members and friends of individuals living with mental illness. The Schizophrenia Society of Ontario (SSO) provides this service in communities across the province, providing resources about serious mental illness, treatment options and tools to cope as a family.

Lauren, working with SSO's Purple Weber, wanted to bring SFT to the University of Toronto to help young people who are caring for loved ones with serious mental illness, have friends who have lived experience or want to understand the symptoms and signs to help someone.

“A lot of students in the sessions are training to be healthcare professionals in addition to having family members or friends living with mental illness,” said Purple Weber, Early Intervention Family Worker at SSO. “For a lot of them it is the first time they speak openly and admit that a loved one is dealing with a mental health issue. It is a great outlet for them, creates great discussions while giving them the tools they need to support their loved one and themselves.”                                                                                                    
                                                                                                                                       
“Purple and I worked together alongside Charmaine Williams, Associate Professor and Associate Dean Academic at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto to bring the SFT program to the Faculty of Social Work,” Lauren said. “I was able to facilitate the first session at the St. George campus in January of 2014 that was open for all students.”

Samantha Turner was one of the Master of Social Work students who attended the U of T sessions because of her career goals as well as personal experience. “There is a lot of talk amongst students that their mental health is not being supported on campus. Many students are living away from home for the first time and feel alone and overwhelmed,” she said. “As a family member, I appreciated the focus on how to support others and also yourself.”

After taking part in SFT, Samantha, like Lauren, decided to volunteer to facilitate groups on her own, which is something many people do after taking the course. "SFT is a program that is run completely by volunteers,” said Purple. “They begin by participating in a group, then observing one to see how it is run and then they are trained and begin leading it on their own. It is a great opportunity for students because many of them are social work students and they are able to bring their practical knowledge to the group.” 

Facilitating groups has been extremely helpful for both Lauren and Samantha. Lauren graduated and is now working with youth who have mental illness. “Doing SFT groups has helped me personally and helped with my career goals. I think it was valuable for me to be a part of something that was in high demand by students. It was also great to see people open up about their experiences for the first time,” Lauren said.

Samantha is graduating in April with a Masters in Social Work, specializing in mental health. “Now I have a deeper understanding of schizophrenia and I’m more confident in the skills I have to work with people living with the illness,” she said. “I would like to pursue trauma counselling after graduation. Having this experience has allowed me a deeper compassion, understanding and awareness which will be helpful when I start searching for jobs.”

The next SFT session on the U of T campus is tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2015 and Purple wants to make sure the word gets out and students know that the program is there for them. “It’s challenging to connect to young people because they are so busy, so we give them options to do the class online or come to the SSO office Toronto in the evenings if that works better for them,” Purple said. “SFT would not be able to continue without the hard work and dedication of our volunteers. There are more than 50 volunteers running groups around Ontario who are passionate about supporting family members.”

Samantha believes everyone can benefit from an SFT course. “SFT focuses on what you can do to support yourself and your loved one because wellness is something that everyone can benefit from,” she said. “Being in a group setting is supportive, less isolating and makes it easier to share your story and experiences.”

To find out more about SFT click here. Visit SSO’s event calendar to see upcoming SFT groups in communities around Ontario.  
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