Akin Mental Health Blog

Mental illness impacts the whole family. Akin is a new approach to family support.

8 min read

Why do we need a new approach?

There is an insidious myth implicitly woven into the American approach to mental health that is keeping people ill. That myth is that mental illness is an individual problem: it is that individual's responsibility and can only be solved by treating that individual. This myth is woven into the structure of the individual treatment settings, the isolation of inpatient stays with little to no family visits, and the heaps of red tape that stand between family supporters and mental health providers.

However, when you hear virtually any story of recovery you will not hear about a person who is alone in their journey. It is being unwell with mental illness that is marked by isolation and disconnection. Mental health, on the other hand, happens in relationships and in community. Stories of recovery involve grandmothers who connected through gentle persistence, mothers who never gave up hope, siblings who shifted perspectives, and spouses who find a way to love us even when we can’t love ourselves.

Looking at these stories we might naively think that these kinds of supportive relationships should just happen naturally, with no effort, no guidance and no information on how to do it. Today’s world leaves this kind of family support up to happy accidents. Mental health professions don’t typically give any guidance to families on how to be a support partner. Families have little access to discuss the healing journey that they are on resulting from the trauma they experience through the illness. Professionals may even actively tell families to let their loved one go and wait for crisis because that is the point when professionals can step in. This approach is the opposite of what science tells us to do. Research shows that there are evidence based playbooks for family supporters and that when families have the tools to help and the tools to heal it creates a remarkable impact on recovery for everyone.

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At Akin we want every family to be able to access the playbook for the collaborative mode of mental health. It is not an easy path and we don’t have all the answers, but it is well worth the effort to work together as a family.

To realize this vision, we’re doing 4 things differently

#1 Specifically designed for family and friends (but not for individuals)

Imagine if you showed up to a salsa dance class with a partner and the instructor only talked to the lead dancer. The instructor only explained the steps from the perspective of the lead and never explained how to do the steps from the followers perspective, never talked about how to do the turns or when to change directions. I don’t think that the performance would go very well, right? Maybe you would both get the impression that you are supposed to lead and run into each other, or maybe one of you would sloppily follow along and guess.

We know that in relationships we have different roles to play. In the example of dancing, some of the knowledge of the dance is shared across both partners and some is specific to the role that we play. We believe that relationships in the context of a mental health journey have a similar dynamic. Akin is focused on the instruction for the follower role. It is different, but it is not unimportant.

For a parent supporting a young adult through a mental health crisis there is an enormous amount to learn, they have a critical role to play and Akin is here to help speak your language. The loved one with the diagnosis does need to play a leading role in their own recovery, but a good follower can make that easier, more beautiful and more successful. And even if you’re working on getting out to the dance floor, isn’t it better to be invited by someone who knows the moves?

This is why we’ve built Akin to be directly accessible by friends and family. We don’t think that the role of support partner needs to be all guesswork. There are decades of research backing approaches that family and friends can take to help create the kind of environment that is more conducive to mental wellness.

Journeys of mental illness also impact entire families at a time. Family and friends have their own unique injuries from the experience and we need to pay attention to that too. Families deserve their own support.

#2 Modern, convenient and on-demand access (but not a crisis service)

Today’s mental health services are confusing and difficult to access. Patients may wait for weeks or months to access a provider only to find that the provider is not the right fit or their needs have changed. In the meantime, conditions get worse and many patients and families are left with no other options than calling crisis lines or emergency services. We believe families should not have to wait for a crisis to get fast and convenient access to support.

Families are very busy and they have no time for waitlists or yet another game of telephone to find resources. Akin is designed to be fully virtual so that our support can be conveniently accessed from anywhere. We have on demand video lessons, run rolling live group discussions multiple times a week, and have an online community. This means you can get started learning and make a real human connection right away – wherever you are in your journey and schedule.

We believe that convenient and immediate connection – when not in an active crisis – can make a huge difference. When we ask our members what is different about Akin than other programs or organizations they have used, they often bring up the modern easy access. Some members have described us as “the shortcut” to get what you need as a family member. We hope that someday all mental health services will feel easy, friendly, and convenient to access but in today’s world this approach feels markedly different and refreshing. Especially for families who are used to seeing the door closed on them or told that talking to them is off limits.

At Akin, we’re ready when you are.

#3 Supportive community (but not a support group)

The best way to describe Akin is: a membership community of families who are learning together about how to make progress when a loved one struggles with mental illness. The focus of the community is on learning, curiosity, and finding strategies that fit. Because we are a supportive community, this can be easily confused with being a “support group”.

While “support group” is a broad word that can function differently in different situations, typical support groups focus on the emotional hardship of the journey and allow members to process difficult feelings in a group setting of supportive peers. This can be very valuable and many people benefit from support groups. Learning new approaches and tools can be a by-product of support groups but it’s often not the focus.

Akin takes these two elements 1) “getting emotional support” and 2) “learning new approaches” and flips their priority from what you will find in other support group settings. We focus on learning, guiding others, making sense out of our experiences and making progress. The emotional support that comes from doing that learning in a group of others in a similar situation is still very meaningful – but it’s not the main course.

#4 Personal growth (but not therapy)

Learning about mental illness and about how to support a loved one can be an extraordinary doorway into personal growth. Family supporters learn deep lessons in humility, compassion, kindness, and communication that can serve us in all aspects of life at any age. Therefore personal growth is a primary benefit of joining Akin.

However, Akin does not provide therapy to people with mental illness diagnoses or to their family members (with or without a diagnosis themselves). Some families that we meet at Akin are also participating in therapy because it is a needed tool to help them work through their personal trauma and intense mental distress they experience on this journey.

What Akin offers is something different than therapy. Most therapists do not have training in how to help family members support their loved ones when the loved ones are in intense distress. Therefore, when families seek therapy and wish to talk about the challenges their loved one is facing, the therapist will redirect to the family member's own distress which may or may not be helpful. There are Akin members who are also enrolled in specialized therapy for supporting their loved one with serious mental illness. In this case, members find Akin's convenience and mutual support community a particularly valuable addition to specialized family therapy

Our approach at Akin is focused on filling this gap for educating and equipping families that therapists do not typically support. We believe the best approach for that is to learn from and learn with others who have walked this path using tools that are supported by research.

Join us to spread this new approach

I hope that this has been a helpful guide to understand how Akin is taking a different approach to mental health. If you are a family member supporting a loved one with mental illness please join our community! We want to learn from you and learn with you.

If you are a mental health professional, I hope you can see how this is filling an important gap. We’d love to connect to send you more information about how to get more families involved and how we can support your practice to be more family focused.

Beyond the blog

Ready for more support?

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Learn more