Coping with mental illness in the family
Every year, nearly one in five Americans suffers from mental illness of one sort or another. Some of these illnesses can be treated very effectively and only last a few months. Others last a lifetime. For a significant number of families, mental illness persists across the generations, so that people who are ill need to look after each other or mentally healthy individuals find themselves with several relatives to care for. Whatever the situation, supporting a relative with a mental illness is never easy. What should you do if you find yourself faced with challenges like this?
Look out for the symptoms
Often, it’s hardest to spot mental illness in those closest to us, simply because we see them all the time so we don’t notice incremental changes. Family gatherings on special occasions like Christmas, Thanksgiving or wedding celebrations can provide a good opportunity to look out for signs that something is wrong with relatives we see less often, especially older people at risk of developing degenerative disorders. Be alert to signs of confusion, high stress (not just the sort brought on by the pressure to hold a good party), fearfulness, withdrawal or outbursts of temper. Physical symptoms like trembling or excessive sweatiness can indicate mental health problems. Don’t rush to conclusions but, if you notice differences like these, take the time to have a conversation and ask if everything’s alright.
Provide practical support
People who are struggling with mental illness need love and sympathy. You won’t be able to cure them and trying to do so could make things worse, but showing that you care about what they’re experiencing will help them feel stronger as they work on their own recovery. The main other thing they will need is practical support. This could be anything from accompanying them on day-to-day trips so they feel safe, to calling them in the mornings to prompt them to get out of bed, helping them stay on top of paperwork and protecting them from scammers, doing housework for them or making sure they take their medication on time.
Look for outside help
One of the most difficult things about caring for somebody you love is admitting that you can’t do everything yourself. Even trained mental health professionals have to face this because it’s not possible to have a healthy familial relationship with someone and be that person’s therapist at the same time. Fortunately, there are outside resources you can turn to. It’s useful to look for resources tailored to specific conditions and situations – for instance, Bunker Labs specialises in engaging with veterans and helping them to recover from trauma-related mental health problems by starting their own businesses. Board member Mark Green is a doctor who spent several years in the military himself and has seen first hand what untreated post traumatic stress disorder can do to people. He also serves on the boards of two other nonprofits aimed at helping veterans in that situation.
Look after yourself
If you feel awkward about getting outside help to deal with your loved ones’ mental illness, ask yourself if this is misplaced guilt. Devoting yourself to someone else’s needs can all too often mean neglecting to take care of your own, and it’s important to realize that you matter too. All else aside, if you don’t take care of yourself you won’t be fit to help anybody. Make sure that you get time away from your care duties from time to time and don’t feel guilty about going out and having fun. Make sure you have somebody to talk to about your feelings. If that’s difficult because everyone you know also knows the person you’re caring for, you may be able to find support in an internet forum, or get therapy yourself to protect your own mental health.
Manage your fears
Caring for a family member can be particularly difficult if you’re worried about developing the same mental illness yourself. It’s frightening to have to second guess your thoughts and feelings, and to watch somebody else’s struggles knowing that they might become your own. It’s important to keep your fears under control and make sure you still enjoy the life you have. Condition-specific support groups can help with this. Remember that, regardless of what happens, you’re a good person and deserving of love and support yourself.
Coping with a loved one’s mental illness can make you feel very isolated, but it’s something that millions of Americans understand. There is help and companionship out there – you don’t need to go through it all alone.