Wood's Homes Blog

Mending broken hearts

November 28, 2019
By Dr. Jane Matheson, Wood's Homes CEO
Mending broken hearts

Why is it so easy for we, as human beings, to talk about a broken arm and so difficult to talk about a broken heart?

Many of us who have been in the business of caring for and helping children and their families for years would say we have come a long way with understanding and accepting our ‘mental or emotional health’, while many others would say we still have a long way to go.

Perhaps the question above shows that both are true. We can at least ask the question now…

I want to talk about how organizations like Wood’s Homes have been gently prodding people of all ages, genders, cultures and living situations with questions about broken hearts. For me, after more than 45 years of watching brokenness and hearing stories of both despair and healing, I would say that it still takes immeasurable courage to live with mental health challenges – and even more courage to talk about them, and make steps towards health and living peaceably in the world.

When mental health issues are seen as weakness, we call this stigma. But really, having a broken heart is just being human.

Maybe taking baby steps – opening our minds to one or two small ideas at a time – is what will eventually change what can be so mysterious and scary. I offer two ideas today and then a small appreciation:

First, if we had a day that celebrated Children’s Physical Health Day instead of the Children’s Mental Health Day that occurs in May, we would all understand what that meant. There would be no skirting around the words, no wondering about what being physically healthy is all about, no shame in admitting to taking up an exercise routine, suffering with a painful leg, being a vegetarian, or finding out you have cancer, a bad cold or an infection. In fact, sometimes these are badges of honour.

But say the words mental and health in the same sentence, and then listen to the silence. We are embarrassed and afraid, ashamed and secretive, and we may feel we are being judged and may just simply change the subject.

And yet, the very essence of who we are is not just our body. That structure simply houses the complications – the joys and sorrows - of our lives and how we make sense of them. How we communicate the core of who we are, how we reach out to others with emotion, and how we respond to how similar the experiences and feelings of others are to us – this is what mental or emotional health and well-being is about. And yet, it scares us.

We want to be seen by others as strong and we still think emotions are weak. We want to be perfect and see mistakes as failures. We are afraid and think others will not notice if we hide our vulnerabilities behind pomposity, jokes or sarcasm. We develop anxiety. We choose an addiction to something. We starve ourselves or hint at despair. We are lonely and pretend we are not. We long for connection and yet fear rejection. We might not like to admit to striving for good ‘mental’ health, but our emotions can sure offer ways to get in the way of that very thing.

The next time someone tells you not to “take it personally,” try saying “if it’s not personal, then what is it?”

Secondly, let us remember – we were all children once, and the children of today will be the adults of tomorrow and on and on it goes. I often marvel that we talk about ‘children’s mental health’ like it is something outside ourselves.  In fact, it is now common knowledge that most mental health issues manifesting themselves in adulthood began in childhood – be it from a traumatic event, witnessing domestic violence, an accident or a grievous loss. Some of these events are simply the stuff of life – events that we need help to understand. We need encouragement and direction to learn how to develop our own resilience within these events so that we can bend with those winds that often blow cold.

Children’s mental health is really our own mental health. In helping children, we help ourselves.

That is what we do at Wood’s Homes every day. We are an organization that has been around for 105 years. We provide some kind of service to about 400 people a day in a variety of different programs. We are located in Calgary and area, Lethbridge, Strathmore and Fort McMurray. Our crisis services take calls from people needing support from across the nation.

Each one of these children, youth and parents comes to our door with a worry, a problem or a cry for help. Some of these problems are big problems and some are small. Sometimes there is major success and joy with the quick changes we see, but sometimes that change takes a very long time and sometimes there is sadness beyond measure – sadness that we need to find ways to transform.

For example, I expect that many are aware of the tragedy that befell Wood’s Homes a month ago. The effect of this tragedy is widespread within and outside the organization and draws attention to many things, such as the responsibilities shouldered by organizations and systems, the staff who diligently and wholeheartedly care for children with significant mental health challenges, and then these mental health challenges themselves – how they are manifested, comprehended and difficult to contain.

On the one hand, this attention to the needs of children, their mothers and fathers who struggle to manage these behaviours and emotions, and the needs of the staff is important. On the other, it also shows how little people understand and are accepting of care for children with the potential to harm. I have been working in the worlds of troubled children and families for over four decades, and I know for certain that it is an exceptionally complex and unfortunately, imperfect business.

But there are some stories of success:  

  • The child who goes back home to live successfully with her parents after a year in hospital and then much challenging behaviour at Wood’s Homes in the Exceptional Needs Program. She is now also attending school and planning on attending university.
  • The 15-year-old with autism and a propensity for violent acting out when stressed who came to us in funder desperation. He is now 20. He lives with a cadre of supportive caregivers in the Temple Program, and he golfs, goes to the gym and even graduated from the Wood’s Homes Culinary Arts Program. His mother had lost hope she tells us, but now she can see a future with her son living somewhat independently nearby.
  • A young man who had been homeless for years and was addicted to drugs finds his way to our EXIT program and, with help, gives drugs ‘the boot’ and prepares for his first job in years.
  • The family who was fortunate to come to the Whole Family Treatment Program at Wood’s Homes for an intensive, live-in long weekend because of a grant given to us. They received subsequent follow-up for some months afterwards and would say their family is in terrific shape after a very bleak beginning.
  • A young woman who is transgender finds acceptance and encouragement in one of the Wood’s Homes’ Learning Centres.
  • A 10-year old who was self-harming comes to our Eastside Family Centre at 7 p.m. one evening, instead of going to the hospital, and received immediate assistance and a plan for safety. Subsequent family therapy helped this child and her parents with understanding how difficult divorce can be.

Wood’s Homes is fortunate that our stories of success are much more numerous than the stories of tragedy. But we do not take this clarity lightly. We also know that every one of those successes described above depends upon systems working together, donors and funders knowing that their dollars are being used well, and that success for children, youth and families can be measured. The organization also depends on staff who are committed to being the best they can be, trained in all of the necessary interventions that help and who are valued within organizations. Without that financial and human support, the ability of all organizations to do good work is lessened drastically.

Wood’s Homes is just one of many human service organizations in Alberta. Some of these organizations are large and some are small, and it may also seem to you like there are a lot of them. Perhaps… but I can also say that we use each other widely to fill gaps that can sometimes be created by mandates, funding demands and expectations, and just the complexity of problems people are facing these days. That reliance on each other can actually make smoother access for families happen.

This is our intention. In the end, that is all that matters – people feeling heard, accessing what they need swiftly, receiving service that is of excellent quality and ultimately experiencing success.

We help mend broken hearts.