As many as one out of every five people in the United States experiences mental illness. But not all of the people who are mentally ill have been diagnosed or are receiving treatment for their condition. Whether or not a person has been diagnosed with a condition such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or any other form of mental illness, their condition affects their loved ones in many ways.
Mental illness is often characterized by mood swings and unpredictable behavior. Family members may feel a wide range of emotions, from resentment to anger to shame. At times, family members may feel they’re so focused on the mental illness that they’re unable to focus on their own lives, particularly parents of children with a severe form of mental illness.
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How Parents Can Be Affected by a Mentally Ill Child
Symptoms of mental illness often begin to be apparent by adolescence. At first, parents may assume symptoms are related to the turbulence that goes with the teenage years. Untreated mental illness can lead to coping behaviors such as substance abuse and eating disorders.
When a parent is unable to reason with a mentally ill child or get them to snap out of illnesses such as crippling depression, the parent may blame himself or herself. Parents of mentally ill children may feel confused, stressed and overwhelmed.
It’s important for parents of mentally ill children to learn as much as they can about the illness, just as they would if their child were diagnosed with a physical illness. Mistakes in parenting don’t cause mental illness. Ignoring symptoms of mental illness doesn’t make them go away.
The Ripple Effect on the Entire Family
Everyone in the family is likely to be affected by one member’s symptoms of mental illness, which can vary from subtle to severe. Siblings of a mentally ill child or teenager are likely to feel that they have a hard time getting their parents’ attention. The spouse of a mentally ill individual may feel confused or angry at unpredictable behavior.
People in the family are likely to have an emotional reaction to the behaviors of a mentally ill person. They may feel like they don’t know what to say or do, leading them to shun the mentally ill individual. There may be a financial impact related to the illness that affects the whole family. There may be a sense of sadness about how the person has been changed by their illness.
Letting Go of Stigma and Shame
One of the biggest struggles family members may face is feeling ashamed of the behaviors of their mentally ill loved one. Hearing the diagnosis of mental illness may make family members feel ashamed, as if mental illness is a personal failing. It’s not—it’s a type of illness.
Mental illness is still stigmatized in our society. The result is often that people who need help are reluctant to try to get it. All members of the family need to work toward acceptance of the mental illness and overcoming the sense of shame and stigma that may go with it.
The Role of the Family in Healing from Mental Illness
When a person is mentally ill, having support from most or all of the members of the family can make a big difference in their ability to get better. Family members may be able to help by offering a non-judgmental attitude and by attending family therapy.
Family members can encourage their loved one to strive to be independent, to take medications as prescribed and to show up for appointments. Each family member needs to also take care of his or her own needs in order to reduce negative feelings such as resentment or feeling overwhelmed.
Mental illness is a biologic illness, and it’s treatable. The more family members take the time to learn about mental illness while still taking care of themselves, the more they’re able to offer the support that their loved one needs.