Helping the whole family cope with mental illness

By: Mary Logan

Throughout my childhood my brother Tom took up much of the family energy due to his mental illness. It wasn't his fault or ours, it just happens that way in families. As I think back on how my parents dealt with the challenges, there are things I think they could have done better. Hindsight is 20/20, I know, and they did the best they could. But it's a very tough situation and every one of us who has lived with it can offer suggestions to other families in crisis, which may spare them some pain. Here are mine. Here are 5 ways to improve the family situation when a member has mental dis-ease.

1. Educate everyone about the illness. Knowledge is power so get books, talk to doctors, seek out support groups (see our resource section for ideas) and gather all the facts you can. You will each have different reactions to the situation, but at least you'll share concrete information.

2. Establish a support team of professionals. It's not just the family member with mental illness that needs professional support. Anyone in the family and the family as a whole may need assistance with emotions, coping, communications, and cooperation.

3.

Talk with family members about the issues. Have family meetings to discuss feelings and problems each person is having. Share possible strategies for addressing problems. Allow each person to express their concerns openly and honestly. Even though the family unit has changed due to the illness, be creative and continue to stay connected as a family even if it "feels different".

4. Develop boundaries around the person's illness. Decide what is appropriate "helping" and what is classified as someone elses's misplaced needs and "enabling". It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking the person cannot do things for him/herself, when often this is not the case.

5. Pay attention to your own wellness. It's not at all unusual to become burnt out, and to start isolating yourself personally and as a family. Take extra good care of yourself. Spend time with friends, go to a museum and get inspired by great art, plant a flower, do things you enjoy. Even if it feels like a struggle at first, do it -- because in the long run your health and sanity needs to be replenished so you can give to the rest of the family.

One word of caution here about the idea of "wellness" or taking care of your "self". You may feel that taking good care of your "self" when the family member suffers from mental illness is just, well, plain ol' "selfish". But the fact is that being able to stay well enhances you're abiliity to deal with your new family situation. In addition, caring for your "self" means your will have more patience and energy when they need you . In the end, families face many challenges if mental illness is in the mix. Be proactive, realize this is manageable, and keep others involved in the process. Living your life as a family may have changed due to the mental illness but that doesn't mean you are not still a "family". Be creative and find other ways to do family things that make sense under the changing dynamics. Nothing is perfect but your response to the challenge and your ability to model proactive behaviors for other family members will assist them in moving forward.

Family
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