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Mental Illness in the Family

Wife, husband, parent, child, grandparent – if someone in your family has been diagnosed with a mental illness, you are probably feeling a mixture of emotions. Concern, compassion, anger, frustration, relief, anxiety, sadness, love, guilt…any and all of these emotions are understandable and normal. What can you do to help your family member, and just as important –what can you do to help yourself?

Don’t play the Blame Game

First of all, do not assume that you are to blame for your family member’s illness. There are many reasons why mental illness occurs, and it is much more common than you may realize. Mental health problems affect Canadians of all ages, genders, cultures, education and income levels. Studies indicate that in any given year, one in every five Canadian adults under age 65 will have a mental health problem.

Furthermore it is likely that mental illness will indirectly touch every Canadian at some time because a family member, friend or colleague experiences mental illness.

What Causes Mental Illness?

Ongoing research points to complex combinations of genetics, biology, and physical and social environments as the main contributors to mental illness. There is no simple answer but we can say that the brain and the body interact in ways that produce the symptoms of mental illness.

Lifestyle, family environment, economic status, substance abuse, stress levels and trauma can also play a role in the onset, or relapse of symptoms.

Conversely, these factors can also be positive factors in helping your family member travel the road to recovery.

Is There a Cure?

Mental illnesses are chronic; in other words, they are lifelong. That is NOT to say that the symptoms are always active. With treatment and support, the symptoms of mental illness are treatable and can go into remission.

Like any disorder – physical or mental – treatment will vary, depending on the illness. Treatments include counseling, medication, support and training by mental health professionals. You too can play an important role as a member of the team, however you need to keep in mind that the responsibility and choices around recovery are up to the individual affected, not the family. Except in cases where mental illness is affecting minor-aged children, parents play an important – but secondary role – around treatment.

Learn All You can about Mental Illness and Recovery

So where does that leave you? It is very important for you to learn all you can about the particular mental illness that is affecting your family member. Go to your library or bookstore and get books on the topic. Talk to the mental health care team; they can give you general information about the illness (although not the specifics of your family member’s treatment), medications and other sources of reliable facts. Contact community organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) – information, support and help are just a phone call away.

Remember – information is power. It gives you the insight to understand that what is happening to your loved one is not personal; it is not about your relationship with him or her. It is about an illness that is causing behaviour that is unusual and beyond the control of the affected person.

Just one last note – under Canadian law, your relative’s health care team is not permitted to share information about diagnosis and treatment; this is legally restricted as part of the confidential medical record. Only your family member can share this information, so encourage your relative to talk with you about what is happening. As frustrating as this situation appears to be, the law was designed to protect the rights of those with mental illness.

Who is taking care of you?

When a member of the family develops a mental illness, he or she often becomes the focal point of everyone’s energy. But who is taking care of your needs? Coping with a relative who has a mental health issue can leave you feeling physically and
emotionally exhausted, vulnerable to other people’s opinions about you, angry, isolated and helpless.

Here are some tips to help you:

1. Accept your own feelings and know that you are not alone

It is natural to feel a range of emotions when you have a relative with mental illness. Other families experience the same challenges and complex mixture of emotion, just like you. Accept your feelings; they are understandable. Then ask yourself – what do I need to do?

2. Stay connected

Embarrassment, social stigma and fear – these are just some of the reasons why people cut themselves off from friends and the rest of the family when a relative develops mental illness. As a result, people become isolated at the very time in their lives when they need the support of their social network to sustain them. Talk to your family and friends; let them know what is happening. Trust them to be there for you, just as you would be there for them. Overcome your own stigma about mental illness and realize that there is nothing to be ashamed about. Reach out for help – someone will be there to answer your call.

3. Join a Support Group

It is also a good idea to join a support group for families – this is a great place for you to vent, share your emotions and develop positive coping strategies with others who are going through the same issues as you. You can also help others by sharing your ideas, sorrows and successes.

Contact a local community mental health organization like the Community Mental Health Association (CMHA). CMHA has branches all over Canada that offer family support groups as well as counseling and other services in a community near you.

4. Take time for yourself

If you have a relative with a mental illness, you have no doubt been cast into the role of a caregiver. Whether that is part-time or full-time, you have been drafted into responsibilities that take up your physical and emotional energy.For that reason, it is essential that you take time for yourself. You need to regularly re-charge your own batteries and renew your spirit before you lose perspective. Schedule opportunities that allow you to relax, have fun and get away – make time for yourself so you can come back to your family with a balanced, healthy outlook on life. You can’t care for someone else if you haven’t cared for yourself first.

5. Seek help for yourself

Living with someone who has a mental illness can be very stressful for the entire family – don’t underestimate the impact and don’t overestimate your ability to cope all by yourself. For that reason, we encourage you to get therapy for yourself and the rest of the family members – don’t be embarrassed to reach out and get help. You need to stay healthy, both mentally and physically, in order to help your loved one. Do it for them, if not for yourself.

6. Develop day to day coping strategies

There may be times when your relative exhibits odd, anti-social or challenging behaviours.
This could occur privately, or in public, leaving you confused, embarrassed or scared. Speak to your family member’s health care team and get assistance in developing effective strategies for de-escalating the situation.

  • Plan in advance
  • Know what actions and options you can undertake
  • Understand that this is not personal
  • Realize that the behaviour is beyond your relative’s control and can be as distressing to them as it is to you

It is also vital for you to understand and communicate to your relative, that you have rights as well. Quietly and calmly tell them that you have a right to not be abused – verbally, emotionally or physically. At no time should you tolerate dangerous or assaultive behaviour. Don’t endanger your own emotional or physical well-being because you are trying to shelter your family member from distress.

7. What to do in a crisis

In spite of treatment and any planning that you might do, your loved one’s symptoms may become severe from time to time. Encourage them to see their psychiatrist right away or to go to a hospital emergency department. Remember, the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome. If your relative refuses to cooperate and their symptoms persist, you have some choices.

This is a time when your support network can be particularly helpful in sorting out the best course of action. If there is a friend who is aware of the issues, solicit their help in trying to persuade your relative to seek help. Talk to people in your support group and find out what their suggestions would be under similar circumstances.

With or without your relative’s permission, you can also call their psychiatrist and relate the situation. The psychiatrist will not be able to discuss your relative’s condition with you, but should be receptive to hearing facts about the current situation. Be as concise and factual as you can be under the circumstances; if you get emotional, your observations might be dismissed as dramatic and counter-productive. Before there is a crisis, find out if there is a psychiatric crisis program in your area. Call them and find out what services they offer.

If your family member poses an imminent danger to themselves or to others, then you must act for everyone’s well-being. Call 911 and tell the police what is happening; your description and their assessment will determine whether or not your relative is taken to a hospital for assessment. Provincial mental health legislation is not standard across Canada, but in general, the law allows a physician, judge, police officer or justice of the peace to force an individual to undergo psychiatric assessment if one of the following criteria is met:

  • If the person is a danger to themselves, suicidal or self-harming
  • If they are a danger to others or homicidal
  • If they are unable to care for themselves to the extent that they pose a risk to themselves

Subsequent admission to hospital and treatment are up to the physician. Your observations are important and can assist the physician in determining the right approach.

Income and Housing Support

If your adult child is unable to work because of their mental illness, you do not have to become their sole financial support. The Canada Pension
Plan has disability benefits and some provinces offer welfare benefits for those who are disabled due to mental illness. Check out what is available in the province you live in and see what kinds of social income supports are available for your loved one.

People with serious mental illness can have great challenges in finding decent and affordable housing that gives them freedom and independence. For
that reason, many organizations have developed community support programmes that provide housing, counseling, life and vocational training.
These programmes are invaluable in assisting individuals with mental health issues to adapt to community life outside of their family homes.
Contact the CMHA or other local mental health organizations to get more information on these community support programmes.

Reach Out – We Will be There

If you have a family member with a mental illness, remember that you don’t have to cope all by yourself. In fact, you need to reach out and build a support network that will help you, so you are in a better position to help your loved one. Community organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and other agencies are here for you. Find a CMHA branch close to you or pick up the phone and call us – we want to help you and your family.

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