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The Role of Social Support in Mental Health Recovery

For this year's 'Life on the Line' campaign, Twentytwenty Arts is raising funds for a Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Toronto program, Family Outreach and Response. The Program Manager, Gillian Gray, gave us some key insight into what the program does, what it has taught her about the role that family and friends play in mental health recovery, and some vital things to keep in mind when someone you love is struggling.


At the CMHA Toronto Family Outreach and Response Program (FOR), we know that families can and do play an essential role in their loved one’s recovery. We recognize that families are profoundly and powerfully interconnected and that when one member is struggling, the whole family is struggling. When families receive support, many outcomes for both themselves as the supporter (for example, improved self-care, overall well-being), and their loved one’s recovery improves.*

Over twenty years ago, FOR was developed to recognize the importance of families and their need to receive information, support, and skills to better support themselves and their loved ones. Many families that arrive at our doors are supporting someone who is not receiving any mental health support. In this situation, families have few places to turn to in the mental health system. Many services will not offer information or support to families without their loved one receiving care. Families are understandably distressed and looking for answers.

At FOR, not only do we equip families with the knowledge to understand the mental health system, but we also focus much of our work on the relationship between the family and loved one who is struggling. Why this approach? Because having a strong and healthy relationship with your loved one is a powerful tool in recovery.

Here are some of our favourite relationship strengthening tips when you are supporting someone experiencing mental health challenges:


Learn more about mental health recovery, different ways that people recover and a variety of recovery tools. Share this information with your loved one when they are ready to receive it.


Create a family environment that promotes empowerment – have high and open expectations of your loved one, provide continuous opportunities for involvement in the family, support your loved one to make informed decisions, value self-determination.


If you are supporting someone who is not yet ready to accept support, reframe the question “how do I get them to accept help?” to “what is going on for them that they are not more interested in improving their quality of life?”. Building understanding and empathy towards what may be getting in the way for them can help both you and them.


Remember that medication is only one tool in recovery. Families often find themselves in power struggles regarding psychiatric medication. Talk to the person about why they do not want to use medication and what they think could help their recovery. Make room for choice whenever possible.


Remind them of their strengths and skills. When you are caring for someone in crisis, it is easy to become overwhelmed and lose sight of their underlying abilities. Strive to be a source of hope and possibility for the person you are supporting. “Hold the hope” for them if they are not in a place to be hopeful about their recovery and future. Try to offer invitations for engagement or support, and then as much as you can detach from the outcome. Let the person know that there are options, but do not make it a burden.

Over my past six years with the program, I have had the honour of leading a team of individuals who help guide families on their recovery journey. At FOR, we ensure we provide families with hope, and one of the most effective ways we provide hope is through our own lived experiences. In addition to being mental health professionals, our staff identifies as having personal or family (or both) lived experiences of the challenges associated with mental health issues. Our shared stories shine hope through suffering, fear and distress. I feel grateful every day for the work we can do, and the families who entrust us to guide them through their recovery journey.



Spaniol, Zipple & Lockwood, 1992; Gyamfi et al., 2010, Pickett-Shenk et al., 2006; Dixon et al., 2004

Blog Statistic

669 Families served in the FOR Program this past year

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