When your family member gets help

Your family member may be very anxious about getting professional help. She will likely have many questions and concerns. In fact, this is very common. People generally know little about mental illness and treatments.

Knowing more about what your family member can expect may help you to support your family member and to talk about her treatment. You may also find it helpful to know what kinds of things your family member and their health professionals will talk about. Encourage your family member to talk with you about her treatment, but be respectful of her privacy. Also, remember that your family member’s health information is confidential.

If at any time you feel that your family member is not talking openly with her health professional, you can contact the health professional to talk about your observations. Before you speak with a health professional, it is a good idea to write down your observations of your family member – changes you’ve noticed and any difficulties she is having. Information about any substance use, physical health conditions, or medications that you know of is also helpful.

What to expect from health professionals

You and your family member can expect that health professionals will:

Questions your family member may be asked

Health professionals will ask your family member many questions. The questions help the health professional to get to know your family member, her concerns and problems and her strengths and hopes. The health professional will also want to know about your family member’s life circumstances; all of this information helps when developing a care plan.

Sample questions include:

Your family member and you may have questions too

Meeting with a health care professional, especially for the first few times, can be very stressful. If your family member and/or you have questions, you have every right to ask them. People can be intimidated by health care professionals, which may make asking questions difficult. It may be helpful for your family member to write questions down before an appointment or to contact the health care professional via phone to ask questions. It’s important to remember that a health care professional is there to support your family member. Your family member is the most important member of her care team.

A few questions your family member may want to ask:

Families should talk with their family member about the importance of involving the family in care planning. Your family member may be reluctant to have information about her mental health shared. Help your family member to understand that you can better support her when you are part of the team. Talk about how you will be involved and what information can be shared with you.

Consistent goal setting

Your family member’s health professionals should support your family member to set, and often review, recovery goals. At times, health professionals may focus too closely on their own specialty and not recognize that your family member may have set goals with other health professionals, and that there may be a conflict. For example, your family member’s psychiatrist may increase her medications to address symptoms, making her tired. Meanwhile your family member is working with her case manager to find a job. Both goals are important but they are working against one another. As a solution, you can encourage your family member to keep a record of her recovery goals and share them with all of her health professionals and with you. This way, everyone is on the same page.

The best way to stay informed of your family member’s care plan, especially if you are not directly involved, is to talk with her. Be open to her choices, questions, concerns and fears.

Recovery goals:

Recovery goals are unique to each person. They can be small or large, long term or short term. Setting goals is an important part of wellness, regardless of where a person may be on her recovery journey.

Recovery goals are set, managed and achieved by the person living with mental illness. They are supported by family members.

Sample recovery goals:


Your family member may set a goal of exercising regularly which she defines as 30 minutes per day five days a week. She may start with a 10-minute walk three times a week. She may then progress to a 10-minute walk five times per week and then a 20-minute walk five times per week. Smaller goals may be achieved until she reaches her overall goal. Recovery goals are often broken down into smaller steps. Each achievement should be supported and celebrated by your family member and you.

Your family member may set a goal of returning to work. This may involve talking to the employer to see if it is possible to resume responsibilities slowly over a period of weeks. If medication makes your family member drowsy in the morning, perhaps it is possible to come in later and work later in the day. If returning to work is not an option at this time, perhaps she can get a voluntary position with a community organization for the important structure needed until she is ready for the workplace.

Advocating for your family member

If your family member has chosen to have you directly involved in her care plan, you, your family member and her health professionals are equal members of the care team. People are often intimidated by health professional know-how and feel that their job is to follow orders. This is not the case. The system is very complicated; some professionals do not have all the answers. You and your family member have to ask questions and provide input to be sure your family member is getting what she needs.

One tip is to keep notes. If you and your family member have notes about previous medications and therapies, copies strategies and their effectiveness, your family member won’t have to try again with something that didn’t work. Keeping records can also help your family member and you to remember what has worked well in the past and will encourage you to use those strategies again. More information on keeping records is included in the appendix.

Your family member may also want to keep track of:

Having this information will prevent your family member from having to tell her story over and over again and will help her to manage her care plan.

Resources to help:

What to do when things go wrong

Health professionals are there to provide support – and most people are satisfied with the care they receive – but things can and do go wrong. Your family member may not be relating to the health professional or team. It can be a matter of “fit”, approach, or that the health professionals’ treatment philosophy just isn’t for your family member. Other concerns may be:

There may be times when your family member and her health professional(s) disagree about medications, treatment approaches, needs. It’s important for your family member and for you to keep in mind that health professionals offer advice and opinions based on their expertise. It is also important to remember that you and your family member hold expertise and knowledge of your situation. Keeping this in mind will help your family member and you to consider advice and opinions that may differ from your own.

Many issues are about poor communication. In fact, poor communication between professionals, their clients and family members is a common source of frustration. The good news is that these issues can often be resolved.

Talking about concerns with a health professional or team is not easy. However, if nothing is said, your family member’s relationship with the health professional(s) is going to worsen which will likely result in less effective treatment and more frustration. Here are some thoughts:

If you have concerns that you don’t feel you can share with your family member, you may want to consider some of the above points before contacting the health professional(s) directly. Remember, the health professional(s) won’t be able to share your family member’s health information; however, he or she should be open to your thoughts and concerns.

If your family member is not able to resolve things with his or her health professional(s), there are other options to consider.

When things have gone really wrong

If your family member’s experiences with her health professional(s) are extremely troubling and haven’t been resolved, she may consider making a formal complaint. Formal complaints should be made to the relevant professional college or regulatory organization. The point of being a registered health professional whether in public or private practice, is that it is mandatory to belong to a professional college or regulatory organization. Their role is to protect the public.

Complaints to a professional college/regulatory body are of a very serious nature and include:

The following websites are for relevant colleges in Nova Scotia:

If your family member’s complaint relates to mental health services provided by the Capital District Mental Health Program, she may contact the patient representative at 460-4544. The patient representative will help your family member make her complaint to the relevant college. Remember that the patient representative is there to support your family member and you.