Coping with Mental Illness in the Family

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Growing up in any family can be challenging at times. However, there are often unique issues when a family member or family members have a mental illness. Members of these families often have to deal with instability or unpredictability. Often there is confusion in family roles. For example, children or other family members may have to take over many of the parents’ responsibilities, such as taking care of younger siblings or managing household duties usually managed by parents. They may even have the responsibility of taking care of the emotional or physical needs of their parents. Children or other family members in these situations do not always receive the care and nurturing they need. In addition, individuals who have a family member with a mental illness may feel ashamed to talk about their situation with others and consequently may withdraw from relatives or friends who could help them or support them. Oftentimes they may have difficulties to recognize and express their needs to others and even to themselves. As a result, these individuals frequently feel isolated and alone.

Common Difficulties

Individuals who cope with chronic and severe mental illness in the family may also experience other difficulties outside of their family-of-origin relationships. These may include:

Relationship Difficulties

  • Difficulty in relationships and experiencing feelings of isolation.
  • Difficulty in initiating romantic relationships and friendships.
  • Difficulty in maintaining romantic relationships and friendships.
  • Difficulty with trusting self and others.
  • Difficulty balancing level of intimacy (excessive dependence or excessive avoidance).
  • Difficulty balancing taking care of self and taking care of others.
  • Difficulty setting and enforcing healthy boundaries with others.

Emotional Difficulties

  • Guilt
  • Anger or resentment
  • Shame or embarrassment
  • Depression
  • Helplessness
  • Tiredness
  • Fear of inheriting a family member’s mental illness
  • Fear of discovery by others, including one’s partner and friends

Behavioral Difficulties

  • Angry outbursts or repressed anger.
  • Inability to deal with life unless it is chaotic or in crisis.
  • Overly responsible or irresponsible in many areas of life such as commitments, money, alcohol, relationships, etc.
  • Self-defeating thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors such as “My needs don’t matter; I’m not worth much; It’s no use trying.”
  • Self-defeating themes involving a tendency to equate achievement with worth as a person, such as, “Maybe I can matter if I can excel at something, be perfect in school, my job, or my relationships. But if I fail, I’m worthless and it’s terrible.”
  • If you are experiencing any of these difficulties, you are not alone. It is helpful to recognize that these relationship patterns, feelings, and behaviors helped you to cope and survive thus far, and during the more vulnerable years of childhood, they even served a coping function. However, it is also critical to recognize that they may be no longer helpful and functional at this time of your life. Your recognition that these difficulties may limit your life choices as an adult is an important first step towards developing new, rewarding, and functional ways of improving the quality of your life and relating to others better.

How You Can Empower Yourself

Acknowledge that you have a family member with a mental illness and how it affects you. It’s normal to have feelings such as anger, shame, and guilt. Remember that you’re not responsible for causing your family member’s problems or for fixing their condition. It’s also okay to grieve the parental or familial support you never received.

Develop new ways of  taking care of  yourself. Recognize that you have legitimate needs and stressors and that it’s completely acceptable to take care of yourself. Try to replace negative thoughts with more positive statements: “I am a worthwhile person. This truth does not depend on my successes or failures. My life has ups and downs, but my worth does not change.”

Develop new ways of  relating to others. Be mindful of old, unhealthy patterns of communicating and practice new ways of relating to your family members. This may include setting and enforcing new boundaries and being respectful of your own limits. As things shift, appreciate and enjoy the stability in your relationships and recognize that relationships don’t have to be defined by crisis or dependency.

Educate yourself  about your family member’s illness. Certainly, this does not mean that you need to know everything about the mental illness of your family member. Your job isn’t to treat or cure your family member, but educating yourself about the illness via reliable online and offline resources can help you understand what your family member is facing and what might have caused problems for your family. It can also help you calm guilt, anger, resentment, embarrassment, shame, and fear.

Consider seeing a mental health professional yourself. You may benefit from seeking assistance—not because you should assume that you are automatically inheriting your family member’s mental illness, but because a mental health professional can help you understand how a family member’s mental illness affects your life and help you explore your unmet or repressed needs and emotions. Further, your mental health professional can help you learn and develop healthier ways of caring for yourself, relating to others, and coping with your difficulties in relationships, emotions, and behaviors, if you experience any.

Join a support group. A support group that addresses your specific situation can help reduce feelings of isolation and validate your experience. Seeking support can be especially helpful when other family members are either uncomfortable with or refuse to acknowledge the problem. If an appropriate in-person support group is not available in your community or you are unable to join a group, there may be an online support community available.

Want to Know More?

Sederer, L. I. (2015). The Family Guide to Mental Health Care. W.W. Norton & Company.

Rosalyn, C. (2011). Helping someone with mental illness: A compassionate guide for family, friends, and caregivers. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Glynn, S. M., Kangas, K., & Pickett, S. (July, 2018). How to cope when a loved one has a serious mental illness. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/serious-mental-illness.aspx

Glynn, S. M., Kangas, K., & Pickett, S. (July, 2018). Supporting a family member with serious mental illness. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/improving-care.aspx

Morton, K. (June 7, 2018). How to deal with a mentally ill parents. Retrieved From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnDE09zumb8 Morton, K. (Aug 4, 2014).

How to deal with family and their mental health. Retrieved From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbDhkxIh-4INational Alliance on Mental Illness (July, 2018).

Taking care of yourself. Retrieved from: https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Family-Members-and-Caregivers/Taking-Care-of-Yourself

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