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Multi-Family Education Workshop: A Space for Families to Find Support

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In April 2018, the Austen Riggs Center held its second Multi-Family Education Workshop, a new initiative that brings family members of current Riggs patients together with Riggs clinical staff members for a day-long educational program. 

What follows is an interview with Margaret Kotarba, LICSW, associate director of clinical social work and one of the workshop organizers.

What Is the Origin of the Multi-Family Education Workshop?

Margaret Kotarba, LICSW: The idea of a workshop for families is not a new one at Riggs; it has been on our minds and in the planning stages, but we are excited to now be at the point of offering this opportunity. When Cathleen Morey, LICSW, became the director of clinical social work at Riggs several years ago, she shared my interest in developing a family workshop. As the primary contacts for families of our patients, Riggs social workers hold in mind the experience of the family and their needs within the frame of the patient’s treatment.  

In addition to the intensive family liaison work clinical social workers do at Riggs and the family work and family therapy offerings, we recognized the importance of bringing families together to provide opportunities for them to learn more about the ways we are working with their family members, and to provide a space for them to share their challenges and wisdom in a supportive environment. Taking what we know about the therapeutic benefits of multi-family groups, we created our own format that was reflective of the unique work done at Riggs. After we developed a framework, I took the lead in organizing our first workshop in October of 2017, with a great deal of help from others, including Nicki May, social work assistant. 

At Riggs, a clinical social worker is available to support patients and their families.

What Does the Structure of the Multi-Family Education Workshop Look Like? 

MK: The workshop, which we hope to hold at least twice a year, is a day-long event that is structured as an experiential forum for family members to learn from staff and each other. It is a combination of educational presentations, open discussion forums, small family peer groups, and alumni panels. Clinical staff members across disciplines (nurses, clinical social workers, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, etc.) engage family members by sharing their perspectives of the treatment approach and various components of treatment from their respective roles, and by discussing and answering questions. In the most recent workshop, staff also convened a simulated interdisciplinary treatment team meeting to provide family members with a firsthand experience of how we engage and process clinical situations involving patients. In addition, we had families divide into smaller groups with two clinical facilitators to provide an opportunity for family members to talk more openly about their struggles and strengths, and to provide support to one another. In the past year, we also assembled two separate alumni panels. One consisted of patient alumni who spoke about their experiences and answered questions about how they came to Riggs, what happened here, and what life was like after leaving, which families found particularly helpful. The second panel consisted of patient alumni family members discussing their experiences about having a family member in treatment, as well as sharing how their family member was doing since completing treatment at Riggs.

So, while the aim of the Multi-Family Educational Workshop is to educate, it is also to provide a lot of space for talking with one another. The feedback we received from families was extremely positive. Mock treatment team scenarios gave them insight into some of our processes while emphasizing the significance of patient authority in our treatment model. They also felt that the workshop allowed them to engage in meaningful and transparent discussions with Riggs staff about our treatment processes. They especially valued the opportunity to interact with other families who were dealing with similar issues and concerns. They said that coming together in this way to share their stories with each other helped them to feel less isolated and alienated. And they appreciated hearing from alumni patients and families. 

What Is Your Hope for the Multi-Family Education Workshop? 

My hope is always that families get something meaningful out of it; that they walk away knowing more than they knew before they walked in, can find some connection to the work their family members are doing, and feel supported by Riggs during what can be a difficult time for families. I hope learning about the way we work at Riggs and being able to put a face to a name helps, and that they feel more comfortable with their family member being here in treatment after getting to know us and the way we work. The workshop has enough versatility to meet the needs of many through its various offerings. The feedback from attendees has been overwhelmingly positive, and as we continue to make adjustments and the offerings evolve, hopefully it continues to be well-received and beneficial.  

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