A Family Caregiver Listens to Gerrit van der Leer

Gerrit van der Leer

By Susan Inman

Gerrit van der Leer, BC’s Director of Mental Health and Substance Use, was the closing speaker at the recent sold-out conference at Vancouver General Hospital on Bringing Cognitive Remediation to British Columbia. Van der Leer has decades of experience in developing recovery-oriented programs for people with severe mental illnesses; these include BC’s Early Psychosis Intervention (EPI) programs and Assertive Community Treatment teams.

A ground breaking resource that’s been developed for the EPI programs is the Dealing with Psychosis ToolkitIn the section on “Understanding Cognition,”the Toolkit contains essential information about the common cognitive losses experienced by people with psychotic disorders. These problems include difficulties with attention, learning and memory, critical thinking skills (e.g., planning, organizing, problem solving, abstract thinking) and social cognition. Too rarely do clients, families or many clinicians learn about these cognitive problems.

The Toolkit also contains numerous cognitive adaptation strategies that can help people manage these cognitive problems. Adaptation strategies are a useful component in cognitive remediation (CR) programs, but CR programs have a much broader mandate. Much of the conference described common components of evidence-based CR programs. These components include intensive, supervised computer based work designed to improve cognitive functioning in areas such as processing speed and concentration, and also include professionally facilitated small group discussions. These sessions operate as bridging mechanisms designed to assist clients to bring their new skills to meeting the challenges of daily living, education and work.

Van der Leer expressed his support for incorporating cognitive remediation into BC’s psychosocial rehabilitation services. He discussed the kinds of next steps that need to occur and reminded the audience that these had also been discussed earlier in the conference in a presentation by Dr. John Higenbottam and Dr. Tom Ehmann.   Policy documents need to be developed that address which populations should be included, what kinds of sites should be selected for delivery of services, which remediation programs should be used, how staff should be trained and how programs should be monitored for fidelity and outcomes.

Van der Leer also reminded audiences that cognitive remediation programs are basically inexpensive and relatively easy to implement.

We learned that BC’s new Ministry for Mental Health and Addictions is looking for input in developing a new whole-of-government approach for responding to mental health and substance use. There are vital roles for ministries involved with health, corrections, housing, education, transportation, and children and families to play in developing comprehensive strategies.

As a family caregiver, I’m hoping that certain key issues can be addressed. Here are just three of these issues:

  • BC (and Canada as a whole) needs improved mental illness literacy programs. Inadequate knowledge among the public leads to inadequate responses to psychotic disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. For instance, delay in treatment of psychosis leads to worse outcomes, and families play a crucial role in getting health care for their family member. Furthermore, inadequate psycho-education programs for clients lead to relapses that are expensive for the health care and criminal justice systems. People are better able to accept and manage their illnesses when they understand them.
  • Many programs training credentialed mental health clinicians do not require any science-based curriculum on psychotic disorders. This is one reason that clients, families and many clinicians have not been learning about the cognitive losses associated with these illnesses; it’s these losses that are considered to be a major factor in ongoing disability.
  • Though contemporary neuroscience and psychiatry no longer blame parents for the development of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, this blame is still common among other clinical practices. It is an obstacle in creating the kind of cooperative relationships that need to exist between family caregivers and clinicians in order to best help people who develop these illnesses. Standards of training need to be raised. As well, mental health authorities need to provide professional development to help staff learn new ways of interacting with family caregivers.

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