Barbara Mullen is one of the specialist leaders in Australia’s first Family Connections course. Family Connections is an evidence-based program developed by the U.S. NEA.BPD organisation. It runs for 12 weeks, is free, and (as the name suggests) is for families and friends of those diagnosed with BPD. Barbara was able to speak with us recently about her experience running the first Family Connections program in Australia.
Why did you decide to become a specialist Family Connections leader?
I think it’s a question of wanting to give back. When I found myself having difficulty coming to grip with the situation with my own daughter [who was diagnosed with BPD], I had good people who guided me through understanding what was going on and what I could do about it. They got me through a very difficult time, and so I want now to give back to others.
You must be able to empathise well with the families partaking in the program then?
Well you can understand absolutely, exactly what they’re going through, but also the difficulty that a family member has in understanding that they have to change. So it’s not just empathy for the situation that they find themselves in, but it’s also empathy in knowing the way that you need to come through.
Was starting the program a daunting experience?
I wouldn’t have said “daunting” so much as “exciting.”
How do you think the students felt at the beginning of the course?
I think that the students in my class… Well, there’s three things they get out of it. There’s learning more about BPD, and that comes from not just learning about the research and the studies and what the experts say, but also means that they learn because they listen to the stories of the other family members in the class. So they’re able to see things and understand the breadth and depth of BPD by the experiences of the family members in the class. Then they also learn skills and techniques to help them come to a place where they are in a position to better improve their relationship with their loved ones. And then the third thing is being with people who understand… Just being in a room with someone who understands is such a relief.
What do you think the participants’ impressions of BPD were at the beginning of the program?
What they know [at the start] is really what their own experience is. Some of them have done some good reading but... I think what they’re able to learn is the very different manifestations of the disorder. There are family members whose children don’t have a diagnosis, for example, and they’re able to find reassurance as a result of the course that, yes, it is BPD. So there’s that. And they’re all very, very different, from those who self-harm to those who don’t self-harm; from those who don’t have contact with their family members to those who are highly attached; you know, a wide variety of manifestations of the illness. So I think that they’re able to appreciate that more.
What sort of changes have you seen in the family members over the course of the program?
They started off as highly anxious, worried and concerned family members/parents… mainly parents, but not just parents. They started off being unable to see beyond the situation that they just thought was terrible. Now I think they have hope- no, I know they have hope; I know they have optimism. They’re able to laugh and they’re able to smile. They are more relaxed, they are more comfortable and they are happier. In particular, Week 3 was very much a turning point, but even right from the beginning they’re able to see improvement in their relationship with their loved ones. In Week 3 it was almost like a case of no going back.
Why do you think these changes are clear during Week 3 specifically?
I think that’s when the skills start to click. Their techniques, and what we’re doing, start to make sense. We would recite the Serenity Prayer [“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference”], and the next question that comes after that is… ‘So what can you change?’ And the answer is that there’s only one thing I can change, and that’s myself. When you are a parent of a person with BPD, what you want is for your child to get therapy; for your child to get treatment; for your child to do this; to do that: and they are resistant. And you learn that you can’t change that, you can’t change them. The only person you can change is yourself. So by Week 3, the logic of that has begun.
So, the course is 2 hours weekly. Do the students and families enrolled have to do any practise outside of those 2 hours?
Practise is really essential for them because what [the students are] doing is learning new skills. And it is absolutely critical to practise outside of the class because it’s about changing behaviours and in order to do that you have to practise. So it’s inevitable that for the period of the course in particular you are absolutely immersed in thinking about it. It’s an intensive experience but you know that once the course is over it doesn’t stop; you continue to work and develop, and it becomes a part of your life. But I did also emphasise the importance of writing. I would set what I would call homework – it wasn’t a case of it ever being checked or corrected or ticked off or anything, but… In order to reinforce your learning, it is helpful to put it down in writing, and the act of writing helps us sort out our thoughts. And writing, for example keeping a journal, is a really important part of our own personal journeys. I highly recommend it.
What do you personally think are the strengths of this program?
Oh, I think undoubtedly the theory behind it. I think its other strength is the commitment you have to make to it. 2 hours a week for 12 weeks is a big commitment. But, you know, people in my class are saying it needs to be longer and they want more! And the other thing is that it has to be free; it has to be done voluntarily. The course has integrity because it is the same that is taught across the board.
It must have been a very rewarding experience for you?
Absolutely. I mean, I was almost desperate to do it because I knew the benefits for me! To be able to reinforce my learning by teaching… A really, really good way to learn is to teach.
And it must be rewarding seeing the changes in the students and families as well?
There is nothing better than knowing what you’re doing is making a person’s life easier and happier. Not just for yourself, and not just for that person, but also for their families. The effects of that are like… It’s like throwing a stone into a pond; you make one little ripple and then the ripple effect goes all the way out.
Have you had anyone attend your classes from interstate?
Not in my class. But I know that there are people who would be screaming out for the program. One of the [problems] is people not knowing about the course. I’m involved in another BPD organisation and we’re doing everything we can to publicise Family Connections because we know the benefits of it. But I think that as people do it, and as the word-of-mouth spreads, I believe that the demand for the program is enormous. If 2% of the population have got BPD…
Are there currently any plans to expand the program here?
They have trained specialist leaders in South Australia, and I think there are a number of programs available there now, as well as Perth, Albury Wodonga and Wollongong in NSW. I think having good leaders is important for the continued development of the program. But I do know that there’s an extraordinary need. That’s also why it’s so critical that it be freely available.
Thanks for your time, we appreciate it.