Coping with Mental Health Issues in the Family

Two women sit on a rock looking out at a hillside.For all the research that has been done in the last 20 years on the brain, the organ at the top of the spine retains its essential mystery. We know more now than ever how the brain works, how it has developed over the centuries to do the miraculous things it does, and what is happening to it when it gets injured. Doctors, parents, coaches, and professional athletes are more alert to the dangers of brain concussion. Neurologists study to become adept at repairing the brain with surgery, cellular transplant, or electrical stimulus. Every one of us has a stake in the health of our minds. But no one may ever come to understand what to do when a brain loses its essential emotional balance.

Serious mental illnesses (SMI), like bipolar, major depression, schizophrenia, schizoaffective issues, and severe personality issues, can result from physical or chemical abnormalities in the brain or hormonal imbalances. These are currently treated with hospitalization, a variety of medicines, and several kinds of therapies including group, art, music, physical, occupational, individual, couple, and family therapy. These efforts do help a person with acute episodes create some safety from self-harm and violence to others. But we currently have no cure for the worst afflictions of the brain. Those afflicted with SMIs bear this burden without much hope of recovering their former selves. It can be a terrible, life-changing diagnosis.

Many in this situation also try to help themselves with illegal drugs and alcohol. It’s estimated that nearly half of those with an SMI may also be addicted to drugs. It’s quite easy to see that chronic emotional issues, coupled with occasional medications from a hospital stay, plus a chemical dependency—legal or otherwise—is a recipe for chaos. And that’s exactly what can happen. These are the majority of those we call the homeless: adults whose psychological instability and addiction make any kind of stable life impossible. They are those whose schools, work places, doctors, community programs, churches, friends, and family, in an uncoordinated effort, tried to help but ran out of options, money, beds, time, or energy.

If you have a family member with an SMI, it almost certainly has affected your life. If you are like most of us, the early months or years were a mix of denial, sorrow, anger, and accommodation as you tried to learn how to manage life with someone who couldn’t stay in the lanes of the average emotional highway. You may have had more than your share of blinding rage at promises broken and soaring optimism with the hope of a new doctor, a new medicine, a new religion, a new apartment. And then the up-and-down cycles of recovery and relapse, of stabilization and hospitalization, continued. It feels out of control.

It’s easy to see how many people give up on those who are the most mentally unstable. In the grand scheme of life, it’s to your emotional and spiritual benefit not to lose touch with your family member who struggles to stay mentally balanced. You may the only connection he or she has to a person who remembers who he or she was before, who has the same family features, who serves as a reminder of his or her place in the human family. You may be the only person with whom he or she can share childhood memories. To keep your own life in balance, to have good relationships, keep your job, and sleep well at night, you will need a simple but unyielding strategy when it comes to dealing with your loved one.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Education: Get informed about your loved one’s diagnosis. Have a basic understanding of his or her medications. Attend family meetings held by the local hospital or other care providers. Learn about the long-term physical and mental outlook of the SMI. Speak to an attorney if financial support, inheritance, property, arrest, or civil commitment issues arise.
  2. Support: Seek out the understanding, company, and expertise of others who struggle with an SMI in their family. Support groups such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and those run by your county or local hospitals or churches are excellent places to find ongoing information, support, and referrals to local mental health resources. Here, you can grieve the person your loved one may never become, and figure out how to live with the person as they are.
  3. Clear personal boundaries: You will need to figure out how to care about your family member while leading your own life. Your job, your marriage, and your children will all suffer if you can’t say no to requests you can’t fulfill, to demands on your time that can’t be met, to assumptions about money you can’t meet. You may need to find a qualified mental health professional to help you manage, grieve, and maintain your limits, especially if you are connected to your family member in any helpful way.

SMI can be devastating and can destroy every good relationship in its wake. One day, we may have more than a bucket load of powerful psychotropic drugs to help manage, and even heal, conditions like schizophrenia. But until then, if you have SMI in your family, do everything you can to manage its effects and continue to lead the life you want. You’ll need help to do it; it’s a long journey.

© Copyright 2011 by Lynne Silva-Breen, MDiv, MA, LMFT, therapist in Burnsville, Minnesota. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Cody

    May 16th, 2011 at 11:49 PM

    A serious illness to a family member can cause a lot of heartache and trouble to any person. Priorities need to be readjusted and a lot of new things incorporated in the daily life. It’s not easy to adapt and there is a high possibility of feeling like there’s no road ahead.

    This could well lead to depression and thereby even more problems. So it would be best to talk to professionals and those that have been through something similar to try and understand what is to be done and also to convince yourself of and to go ahead with the changes that come along with the loved one’s illness.

  • Deanne

    May 17th, 2011 at 4:20 AM

    What I have always thought would be difficult to manage would be to see a close family member suffering from mental illness and wondering if I was going to be next. We hear all of the time that these illnesses are very much genetic based, so of course any rational person would always have that thought in the back of their mind, wondering if they were going to be next.

  • susie

    May 17th, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    not only is there a change in lifestyle but there is also the worrying thought constantly bothering you…I’d hate to see a loved one in such a condition.dont just aim to stay fit but also encourage your family members to maintain their health too.

  • runninfast

    May 17th, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    Being educated is better than trying to run away from the problem. Running away only makes the problem worse. Read and learn all that you can about a specific illness if this is something that runs in your family- that way you will have an idea of what to be on the lookout for if symptoms begin to show up in a loved one.

  • Joan

    May 18th, 2011 at 4:32 AM

    This really hits home. I have good friends in the throes of these issues. They had been advised by a mental health counselor to stay away from their close to 40-year-old adult son when he would have

    episodes, as it was a way to manipulate the parents. My good friend is now states away with her son, unemployed, and away from her husband and former life.
    It’s so hard as there are no good or clear answers.
    With all she is doing for her son, my friend is wise getting weekly therapy for herself.

  • John Lee LMHC

    May 18th, 2011 at 1:24 PM

    Many times I have seen family members wonder why their loved one can’t just snap out of it. Example “Im tired of your condition”

    We need more education to stop the
    stigma on chronic illnesses of the Brain. The
    Brain is an organ just like the heart or
    any other major organ in the body.

    To get better one needs to feel comfortable in talking about what is going on to a well trained and experienced professional. Family education and therapy is also very helpful. There are also many support groups for families who has a loved one with chronic mental illness.

    People who suffer from chronic mental illness such as schizophrenia are not outcasts they arre Human beings who deserve the same care as a person with a Heart problem.

    I commend the author as this is a subject that needs to be taken out of the closet and talked about!

  • Ona B

    May 19th, 2011 at 4:41 AM

    I have seen families who have literally been torn apart by the existence of mental illness and their inability to deal with that. They allow themselves to reamin uneducated in the area and hence cause even bigger problems than the illness alone could bring about.

  • Carol

    May 21st, 2011 at 6:46 AM

    mental illness tore my family apart because there was little to no understanding of what was going on or the best way to treat it. this was not only true for the family but also for the doctors in the small town where i lived. everyone just said go to bed, sleep it off, but we all know it is not like that. those bad things haunt you no matter in sleep or awake. we sought the help of many and read and read until we got some answers but not enough to get us back the years that were lost to not knowing.

  • Lynne Silva-Breen, Author

    Lynne Silva-Breen, Author

    May 29th, 2011 at 3:53 PM

    All of you testify to the power that misunderstanding, isolation, shame and helplessness have in the wake of major mental illness in the family. I have seen MMI ruin family relationships, wipe out family resources, precipitate divorces, and literally destroy homes. I pray for the day we have better treatments. But in the meantime, we all need to grow in knowledge about the disorders and options for care, treatment, and family unity.

  • Kelsey C. Laine

    May 29th, 2011 at 10:53 PM

    @runninfast–In my family, we have a history of breast cancer and prostrate cancer.

    We make a point of telling our kids the signs and symptoms of both of them, and make sure they understand how to tell if you might have it.

    It’s important to know. That knowledge can save your life.

  • Corinne W.

    June 4th, 2011 at 1:43 PM

    @John: Those who can just snap out of it must be very few and far between. Sometimes it takes a severe shock to pull them out of it, but if done poorly it can make them worse can’t it?

    Perhaps it would at least be a wakeup call as to how bad the problem is for them and their families.

  • Wendy G. Norris

    June 11th, 2011 at 9:02 PM

    Schizophrenia is actually one of the most debilitating illnesses there is.

    It’s not like a heart attack where you are slowed down if you survive. Schizophrenia ruins your entire perception of reality and it can’t be cured to my knowledge, only suppressed.

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