How to Cope with Mental Illness as a Family

June 26, 2019

Earlier this month, my family participated in the second annual Move for Mental Health Charity Bike Ride and Walk at Laurel Acres Park in Mt. Laurel, NJ. Move for Mental Health is a nonprofit organization focused on reducing the stigma of mental illness and helping community members in need of mental health services. Sami Sorid, the 19-year-old founder of Move for Mental Health, was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) at a young age. She organized this charity event to help lift up other individuals and families living with serious mental health conditions.

Participating in this event with other people who understand the challenges of mental illness was a new and positive experience for my family. Not only did we support a meaningful cause, it reminded us that our family is not alone – we are one of many households in our community grappling with mental illness.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in every 5 adults experiences a mental health issue in any given year. Half of mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75% of mental health conditions develop by age 24. Even though every year millions of Americans suffer with mental health issues, less than 60 percent seek treatment. Loved ones, therefore, play a fundamental role in helping and supporting them.

I know from personal experience that when one family member is diagnosed with a mental illness, it impacts the whole family. Anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are some of the mental health issues that have affected my parents, siblings, and children. When a loved one is diagnosed with mental illness it’s very normal to experience a range of emotions. Feelings of shock, denial, guilt, fear, confusion, frustration, anger, and grief are common. The emotional and financial responsibilities that come with trying to manage mental illness can be exhausting and can cause stress in the household, frequently straining relationships. Often families fear stigma or don’t know where to turn for help, and as a result they may isolate themselves and suffer in silence. There is definitely a learning curve when there is a diagnosis of a mental illness, but ultimately families must learn how to understand and support their loved ones while at the same time maintaining their own quality of life.

Fortunately, there are safe and effective medications and psychotherapeutic treatments available to help reduce the symptoms associated with mental illness. As a result, many individuals with mental health conditions develop meaningful relationships and enjoy productive lives. It takes willingness and persistence to fight the challenges of mental illness. Here are some tips to help individuals and families cope with a mental health condition:

Get an accurate diagnosis 

Mental illness affects thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and interactions with others. There are different types of mental illness. Talk with a doctor and/or a mental health professional about your symptoms to get an accurate diagnosis. This information will help you understand the illness and help determine appropriate treatment. It is possible to reduce symptoms and manage mental illness, especially when you have a treatment team in place that includes support from family members, friends, medical doctor, and psychotherapist.

Educate yourself

 One of the best ways you can support a loved one with mental illness is to do your research. Learning all you can through reliable resources will help you understand the diagnosis and what the person with mental illness is facing. Some family members may view mental illness negatively based on their own stereotypes or lack of education about the illness. Evidence-based research can calm fears and diminish the stigma attached to the diagnosis. It’s easier to support someone who is struggling with an illness when you know what you’re dealing with. Websites like Mental Health America and the National Institute of Mental Health provide helpful information. There are also other tools you can utilize online: podcasts like Mental Health Happy Hour and YouTube channels like Kati Morton.

Communicate effectively

 Having good communication skills is beneficial in all relationships, but it’s especially important when a family member has a mental health condition. Keep in mind that the symptoms of mental illness may affect perceptions and behaviors, so the person with the illness may perceive differently what you’re trying to communicate. Insecurities or fears of being misunderstood may cause the sufferer to withdraw or lash out in anger. Try your best to think about how the the person suffering is feeling and not what is being said.  Don’t react in an aggressive or critical manner. Instead, be mindful and respond by using language that is clear and respectful and speaking in a tone that is calm and neutral. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries that have consequences, but have realistic expectations. Making thoughtful changes in how you relate to all your family members, not just the one struggling with mental illness, will help build trust and keep the lines of communication open.

Reach out for help

It can be agonizing to watch helplessly as a loved one struggles with mental health symptoms. If you or a loved one are struggling with a mental health issue, you are not alone. There are many people who can relate to what you’re going through. The support for mental illness is available through various resources, such as family, friends, house of worship, primary care doctor, therapist, etc. You can also get help through local support groups. NAMI, for example offers a free 12-week course called Family-to-Family Education Program. Also, groups like Families Anonymous, Co-Dependents Anonymous, and Al-Anon can give family members an opportunity to connect with others and discuss the challenges they face. Don’t isolate yourself; help is out there.

Prioritize self-care

Oftentimes when a family member is diagnosed with a mental illness, managing the illness becomes the primary focus of the household. The symptoms of mental illness can cause chaos and instability in the home. Finding the time to care for yourself may seem impossible. However, that is exactly what you have to do if you want to maintain your physical and mental well-being. Begin to shift the focus from the mentally ill person to yourself by developing lifestyle habits that are good for you, such as healthy eating, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and mindfulness. And participate in activities you enjoy. Most importantly, treat yourself with love, respect, and compassion. It truly makes a difference!

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