Mental Illness…It’s A Family Affair

By Farah Hussain Baig, LCSW

Expectant parents spend months creating images in their mind of who they want their child to become.  But above everything, parents will consistently share their primary hope is to have a healthy child. With prenatal genetic testing, it is possible to confirm the likelihood of an unlimited list of disorders prior to birth. However, one’s predisposition to mental illness related issues are not that easily detectible. There are a number of variables, genetic and environmental, that contribute to the onset of various mental health conditions, many of which cannot be predicted. This scary reality is one that too many families face at some point in their lives.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that one in four adults in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, with depression being the leading cause of disability in the US for individuals between the ages of 15 and 44 (CDC, 2016). Across cultures, mental illness is largely misunderstood and as a result many individuals go untreated. This presents a very real public health concern as mental health related issues can have a profoundly negative impact on the family system.

Families of a loved one living with a mental health condition can suffer in almost every area of life-emotionally, financially, and socially, just to name a few. The physical ramifications of stress alone can bring about symptoms in all of these areas and the consequences go largely ignored. Whether the diagnosed individual is a child or a parent, the pain and trauma experienced by everyone in the family system is significant.

Facing Mental Illness:

When a parent or caretaker suffers from a mental illness, it can prevent them from being emotionally and physically available to their loved ones. It is natural for children to create narratives that help them understand the world around them. Unfortunately, when living with a parent diagnosed with a mental illness, these narratives can become distorted and will often involve self-blame, guilt and shame, questioning one’s value, choices, and even one’s feeling of safety.  All of these distorted narratives can impact self-esteem which can lead to another set of mental health concerns as well as social, emotional, and academic problems.

When a child is diagnosed with a mental health condition, it is normal for parents to go through their own self-blame process, wondering what they could’ve done differently. Depending on the severity of the condition they may even experience feelings that parallel the stages of grief- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Sometimes siblings will minimize their own needs as a learned behavior because their ailing sibling requires so much attention.  This can lead to resentment as attention often gets diverted to the suffering child and their needs tend to get put to the side.  This becomes even more apparent as they watch their family’s resources of finances, time, and emotional energy dwindle. This struggle to access limited resources can create a tremendous amount of stress on a marriage as well, which for many, can result in divorce.

Mental Illness can present in ways that illicit sympathy and in other ways that can illicit distain and resentment depending on how symptoms manifest themselves. Sometimes making it hard to remember an “illness” is actually involved. Some of these symptoms can include emotional lability, substance abuse, self-harm, physical violence, and manipulation, all of which can contribute to an atmosphere of chaos. Families who live in this heightened state of stress will often speak of “walking on eggshells”-needing to be extremely careful around the individual with the mental illness making it difficult to set boundaries for fear of upsetting them. Over time, family members can experience learned helplessness, compassion fatigue, apathy or enabling, generally developing a high tolerance for inappropriate behavior-all of which ultimately perpetuates the illness.

It is human nature to not want to see a loved one suffer. This is why parents go to the end of the earth to help their children and why partners and friends will bend over backwards to help those they love. Turning away from a loved one with mental illness is not an easy choice and if a situation becomes extreme where distance is necessary, family members may need extra support.

As previously mentioned, mental illness is largely misunderstood and most people don’t fully understand basic mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, let alone other mental health disorders. Therefore, it is very important for family members to educate themselves on mental health conditions that are specific to their loved one.  Additionally, the caregivers or family members who have been affected by those with a mental illness should seek out their own support, counseling, and incorporate self-care techniques in order to better help their loved one and themselves.

Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) work to reduce stigma around mental illness and have a number of resources for individuals and families that have been impacted by mental health conditions. There is never an easy fix or a simple solution when dealing with a loved one with a mental illness. Be patient with yourself, your family member, and the situation, as it may take years to find a plan that works.

As we look forward to Mental Health Awareness month and continue into the year, let’s remember that mental illness is real, even when it shows up in ways we don’t understand.  It impacts everyone in the family system, not just the diagnosed individual. Have compassion for the individual and their loved ones as the path to peace and healing is a journey and each person may take a different route to get there.