Kristi Horner’s journey as a mental illness caregiver began in June 2010 with a phone call from her brother. What he told her during that call — that he was considering ending his life — set her on a path she wasn’t fully prepared to walk.
“You’re never really prepared for a call like that,” says Horner, of Chagrin Falls. Nevertheless, she sprang into action, dropping everything to get on a plane and help her brother come up with a plan. Over the next four years, Horner made many visits to see her brother and spent countless hours helping manage his care. This ended in 2014 with the phone call she had hoped she would never receive: Her brother had taken his own life.
“Almost instantaneously in 2014 when [my brother] ended his life, we were left with this whole sense of, ‘We were not prepared as caregivers,’” Horner recalls. “I immediately knew there had to be a better way of taking care of the caregivers. It was this huge epiphany of, ‘Wow, I am left here with this hopelessness, guilt and despair.’” This realization led Horner to the journey she is on today, as the founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization Courage to Caregivers.
The organization aims to empower those who are responsible for taking care of others to first take care of themselves, a challenge Horner understands all too well. “I knew all along what I needed to do,” she says. “Yet, in the throes of my active caregiving for my brother, I lost sight of everything else because I was focused on the next call. It could be the call.”
Based on conversations with hundreds of people with knowledge of behavioral health issues, a survey, the results of a focus group and Horner’s own brainstorming, Courage to Caregivers is piloting three programs in 2019, all fully funded. The organization’s One-to-One Caregiver Support program matches two individuals — one in need of support and the other a trained volunteer with experience as a mental illness caregiver. During virtual or in-person meetings, the volunteer is there to listen, and to offer support and information about resources to the participant.
The second initiative is a support group that focuses solely on the caregiver’s self-care. “When they come in to our support groups, they’re checking their loved one’s mental illness at the door,” Horner says. “We are going to focus on the caregiver and their self-care.” The third is breathing meditation, a tool that can help caregivers manage their stress. Visit couragetocaregivers.org for more information about taking part in a program.
Ultimately, Courage to Caregivers exists to empower caregivers to start taking care of themselves again. The organization cannot do the work for them, Horner says. “We believe that people have the inner strength to solve these problems, but what gets in the way is the stress of caregiver burden. Oftentimes as a mental-illness caregiver, you start to lose yourself in the process,” she says. “You’re prioritizing their mental health and well-being over your own.”
But, she says, “We believe that self-care is not selfish. We believe that you have to put on your own oxygen mask first.”