Communications Consultant, Linda O’Connor, BA interviews FAMILIES Educator, Heather Megchelsen.
Heather has worked with FAMILIES for five years in the Omineca/Lakes District.Prior to that Heather worked with high-risk youth and children with behavioural problems and their families in Abbotsford and Chilliwack. She also worked with family members of children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder at the College of New Caledonia. But you may be surprised that Heather is a veteran ventriloquist who teaches children about mental health awareness through puppet shows and presentations.
L: Before we start, I first have to ask, how did you end up being a ventriloquist?
H: I’m dating myself here [laughter], but do you remember [the ventriloquist] Sherry Lewis and [her lamb puppet] Lambchops? When I was 12, I wanted to be just like her, so I began training. Later as an educator and public speaker, I found a cute puppet makes for an easier conversation with children.
L: What a wonderful innovation! Are there others you’ve been working on lately?
H: I’m really excited about our new SMART program to help family and friends of a person with an addiction. We live in an isolated area with a lot of addiction and trauma issues that spread through groups. The main past time in our long winters is going out to one of our two bars or drinking at house parties.
L: I see what you mean. Tell me more about the SMART program.
H: SMART stands for “self-management recovery training.” It comes with a lot of tools and topics (14 sessions, 1.5 hours per week) about the aspects of addiction and learning how to focus awareness on self care and inner dialogue. The idea is that you’ve got to change yourself in order to get your life back on track. We disable the enabling. You learn more positive language for approaching your loved one with a concern and how to get results. I like that they get a workbook they can refer back to on what to do in certain situations without resorting to nagging and guilting [sic]. You gain control back over your life.
L: What a great program. Are there others?
H: Yes. Mental Health First Aid teaches people what to look for and do when someone they know is manifesting the signs of mental illness. We talk about a range of mental illnesses including depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and more. Giving more information and education on the family story really helps lower the stigma. We teach that mental illnesses are physical illness just above the neck.
This spectrum of engagement can help us understand our role in any decision-making process.
There are several other programs. I partner with Northern Health (Mental Health & Addictions) to help families including Chair Yoga, Tai Chi and walking programs. I also facilitate support groups, the comprehensive Strengthening Families Together program (coming up in the New Year) and Your Recovery Journey program. I give Partnership presentations (with a family member and a person living with schizophrenia) on schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders for students and other community groups. People can check bcsspg.org for details.
L: Are there FAMILIES programs for the future you’re working on?
H: Yes, I’ve been working on Beyond the Blues for young people and adults, which is an annual education and screening event all about removing the stigma of mental health issues and increasing awareness. I do this by offering a kind of mental health fair with tables that have mental health/illness information for families, free stuff, games and things you can build like stress balls made by pouring sand into a balloon. Another table features Stress Bingo for prizes. It’s a fast-moving game that helps people reach an “ah-hah moment” about how to better handle the personal stress in their lives. There are also mental health self-tests, which are scored and debriefed by local counselors. In the future I might even add a yoga tent and bring some therapy dogs.
L: That sounds like fun! How would you sum up the role of FAMILIES in the Lakes District?
H: All the focus is on hope and help. We help the family to see the individual first, not the illness.