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Supporting someone with mental illness

A mental illness in the family is a major life crisis. It alters the structure of everyday life, and the changes themselves will add to our general distress.

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Yet families can and do survive the experience. If mental disorder strikes in your family, there are things you and others can do to help you cope more effectively.

Foster the will to be well

Talk in positive terms (about recovery, a new job, a new life) though not at the expense of honesty about feelings and fears. Give and expect, respect and responsibility. Assign all family members a share of household duties and a place in family discussions. Don’t overprotect the sick one or give them special treatment or let them hide behind ‘being different’.

Seek out information

Though there are few cut-and-dried answers about mental illness, there are broad guidelines which will help. Questions about financial assistance, education, employment opportunities and other practical concerns do have definite answers. Check with relevant psychiatric professionals, read relevant books and articles. Be prepared before a crisis

Broaden the helping network

That way less of the burden falls on the immediate family, especially children. Friends, neighbours and colleagues may be willing to give practical assistance, if asked. Self-help and mutual-help groups (for patients and/or their family and friends) have been life-savers for many.

Live your own life

Though it’s difficult at this time, each person must pursue their own interests and keep in touch with personal friends. Such outlets relax us, help counter-balance the strained atmosphere at home and keep us in touch with ‘ordinary’ behaviour.

Learn warning signals

Try to access the words, actions or attitudes that precede problems, and figure out their timetable. If in doubt, check with a helping professional.

Don’t expect too much of yourself

You may be tired, angry or resentful at times. Your job and other personal relationships may suffer. Few people can be patient and giving all the time.

Don’t blame yourself

Mental illness can be caused by environmental stresses, biochemical imbalances and other factors. Family disruption and events in family history may not have helped, but they are not necessarily the cause of the problem.

Talk about your situation

Many people find that they cannot discuss the situation with close friends and family. If you have trouble obtaining the understanding and support you need, contact a self-help group. People who have ‘been there’ can listen objectively to your problems and give valid advice.

Seek out counselling

If the family finds it very difficult to cope, counselling (for the entire family) may be a wise alternative. There are many types of counselling available; check your community information sources.

Don’t give up too soon

Recovery from mental illness takes time. Like a wound, its healing is gradual and cannot be rushed. Don’t be discouraged by temporary setbacks; don’t lay blame when things go wrong. The family is in this together, for better or for worse.

Mental illness creates a highly charged atmosphere in the home

It is hard to be logical and rational about a mental disorder in the family. Caring feelings for our relative, confusion about their behaviour, fear for the future, vulnerability to the world’s opinion, worries about our own mental health — all these things create a merry-go-round in our minds.

The stress may finally begin to erode family unity and the mental health of other family members. It requires strength, commitment, perseverance and, of course, love. It is a tall order for any family.

There is no simple advice. There are no easy remedies. It is a tough situation — but far from an impossible one. Eventually, we may know the joy of seeing our loved one restored to health. In the meantime, all of us will grow as human beings and enhance our capacity for living