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What ever happened to ...? Updates on help for able-bodied siblings, mental health podcasts and more

MinnPost photo by Andy Steiner

Last summer, I had the pleasure of meeting Sherry Kempf, mother of Ava and Rui Rui Bleifuss. While we drank iced tea (me) and coffee (Kempf), I learned about the challenges then 9-year-old Ava faced growing up as the able-bodied younger sibling of Rui Rui, then 12, who lives with degenerative neuromuscular disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth.

Kempf told me about how Ava, who struggled with jealousy and frustration over the attention her older sister’s medical needs require from her parents, had blossomed while attending a support program for able-bodied siblings of medically complex kids. The program, known as the Sibling Support Group, is run by Roseville-based Pediatric Home Service, an agency that offers in-home medical care for children. Ava’s dad, Ethan Bleifuss, had heard about the program in an article I wrote back in February.

The group was a way for Ava and her parents to connect with other families who were in similar situations, something they’d had very little opportunity to do during Ava’s lifetime.

“This was this magical moment of, ‘We’re finally in a group,’ ” Kempf told me last summer. “Ava saw it as a way to connect with other kids. She’s not always that big on talking about feelings, but in this group she felt comfortable. It was very important to her.”

Just this week, I got an email from Kaitlyn Bourget, Pediatric Home Service’s digital specialist. She wanted to let me know that my article about the Kempf/Bleifuss family’s experience in the sibling support group had inspired yet another family to join.

“They signed up because they read your article,” Bourget said. “We’ve had such good feedback about the program. We even extended the first group because they didn’t want it to end.”

Based on the support group’s popularity, Pediatric Home Service has decided to offer another session that will begin mid-February and run into the spring. Registration deadline is Feb. 4. There is still room for a few more kids and their parents.

A few program participants, including Kempf, were so excited about the specialized support the group offered for their children that they recorded video testimonials.

“There aren’t many programs like this one,” Bourget told me. Able-bodied siblings of medically complex kids can sometimes feel left out of the picture. “So parents get really excited about the opportunity for their children to meet other kids in the same situation. They don’t see a lot of people in their situation it makes them fee like they are in a normal family.” 

Circle of Excellence

At the tail end of 2015, I wrote an article about the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ Commissioner’s Circle of Excellence Awards, an annual event that honors the achievements of select human services programs in the state. This year, I was wrapped up in other end-of-year deadlines and I wasn’t able to write an article about the awards program. But I wanted readers to have an opportunity to learn a little bit about some of the programs that were honored.

Once again, the work of nearly every single one of the honorees is focused on mental health and addiction. The Department of Human Services produces an excellent set of videos detailing each award winner; I thought readers might be interested in learning more.

Last May, I wrote a story about one of the honorees — Arts Center of St. Peter. Keep your eyes peeled: I’ll likely write about at least one more in 2017.

Mental illness and comedy

Just last month, I wrote about the premiere of "The Hilarious World of Depression," MPR host John Moe’s new podcast that takes a closer look at the link between mental illness and comedy. The show is produced by St. Paul-based American Public Media and sponsored by HealthPartners’ Make It OK campaign.

I’ve been listening to the show ever since, and I think that Moe does an impressive job of going in-depth with some of the nation’s leading humorists, getting them to talk about how their depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder plays a role in their comedy. His interview style is thoughtful and sensitive without being smarmy or condescending.

The show might’ve seemed like a tough sell to some, this focus on sadness and struggle, but "The Hilarious World of Depression" does a great job highlighting each guest’s humanity — and humor. My favorite interviews so far? Duluth native Maria Bamford, who talks about how her bipolar II fuels her comedy and her life, and Dick Cavett, who recalls how attitudes about mental illness have changed since he first discovered his own depression when he was in college.  

And it’s not just me who’s been listening. "The Hilarious World of Depression" has been getting rave reviews and top rankings from a number of sources, including USA Today, who listed it as one of the best new podcasts in 2016.

When I interviewed him last month, Moe told me he was inspired to go public with his own history of depression by his older brother’s suicide. He said he wants to prevent similar deaths by making conversations about mental illness feel routine.

“We have to make talking about depression as routine as talking about having a store tooth or a broken leg,” Moe told me. “We need to get it taken care of.”  

Good point. One way to do that, I’d say, is to keep those great interviews coming.

'Terrible, Thanks for Asking'

Since I’m talking about new mental health podcasts, I’d like to put in a plug for another great option that is also produced by American Public Media.

It’s called "Terrible, Thanks for Asking," and its hosted by Minnesota native Nora McInerny, author of  “It’s OK to Laugh (Crying Is Cool, Too),” a memoir of her too-short love affair and marriage with Aaron Purmort, who died of a brain tumor in 2014. McInerny’s book was inspired by My Husband’s Tumor, the blog she kept about her relationship, her husband’s diagnosis and death, and her grief.

In the podcast, McInerny talks to people who have also struggled with incredibly tough challenges. She looks for honesty form her subjects and doesn’t expect them to sugarcoat their experiences. I’d suggest you give it a listen, and if you are looking for a little more background information, try reading this Q&A that I found on the blog Wit and Delight.  

I’ve met McInerny before, but I’ve never written about her. I’d like to sometime in 2017.

Beyond resolutions

Back in November, as the dust was settling from the 2016 presidential election, I talked to Lloyd Sederer, author and former New York City mental health commissioner. Sederer offered tips on how blue-staters still reeling from the election results could begin working to regain at least a measure of their emotional equilibrium.

Since our interview, Sederer, a busy man who produces a prodigious amount of copy, and I have remained in contact. He’s sent me a number of links to some of his recent work. I thought I’d let you know about two that stand out:

The first is a Psychology Today column that Sederer wrote about how to move beyond resolutions and step into the New Year in a fresh frame of mind. All it takes, he says, is to follow three steps.

My second Sederer link is to a TEDx talk on mental illness in the family that he recently delivered in Albany, New York. It’s an easy, 15-minute speech that offers plenty of practical advice for families working to help their loved ones navigate the choppy waters of mental illness. 

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