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Effects of Mental Illness on the Family

Written by: Hanna Molander, psychology student at Linköping University

First version: 22 Jul 2008. Latest revision: 19 Aug 2008.

Question:

 How does mental illness affect the family?

Answer:

To be suffering from a psychiatric condition is by many described as a painful and sometimes traumatic experience. When someone close to you goes through this you will not only be affected because s/he is in pain, your life will be affected in a number of other ways. It can affect your financial situation, how and where you live and work. The emotional effects can be a constant worry which in turn can cause psychological problems for you as well. According to a Swedish study, half of the family members have had to give up their own recreational pursuits. A fifth had to, at one or more occasions, leave their job. An even larger number stated they have felt isolated and restrained from seeing other people. Half of the people in this study claimed they developed psychological or social problems of their own to the extent that they needed help and support. Symptoms described by family members were sleeping problems, stomach pain or depression. It is not unusual that family members are carrying around feelings of guilt and shame because they think they are to blame for the development of the psychiatric illness or for not knowing how to handle this kind of family crisis. A consequence of feeling guilty and ashamed is that it might feel difficult talking to others about what you are going through. A lot of the times it helps to talk to other people that have similar experiences as you have. Many relatives of the mentally ill join a support group. Make inquiries about what options are available to you in your local community. You can ask at the mental health clinic or check with charities in your area if there is a support group that suits your needs. If you don’t feel comfortable talking in groups and sharing with others you might want individual support. The important thing is that you get an opportunity to focus on how you feel and what you need.

For a long time parents and other family members got the blame for the occurrence of psychiatric problems. This has its origins in the early psycho-analytical tradition where problems in adulthood thought best to be explained by experiences in early childhood. Psychological theories have developed since then and today we know that the family plays a great role in the process to recovery. People who have gone through the recovery process express how important safety and continuity is. A lot of people with psychiatric problems often feel isolated and lonely. Therefore it is very important to have people around to talk to and share everyday life with. It makes a major difference to have somewhere to go even if it is in the middle of the night and someone to listen, someone who still believes recovery is possible. Therefore it is important, not only for you, but also for the sick member of your family that you take your own feelings seriously. Only if you get the support you need you can contribute to the wellbeing of your loved one.

When it comes to children they are often the invisible victims. Having a parent with a psychiatric illness brings about a lot of difficulties. As a child it is hard to understand why a parent is not feeling well and many blame themselves. This can result in low self esteem and a poor self-image. The children might also be embarrassed to bring friends home or might not be allowed to. Many children therefore grow up to feel different than everybody else around them and end up lonely and isolated from peers of their own age. Therefore it is very important to look for signs that a child is not feeling well. The sooner a child gets the appropriate support the less likely it is that s/he develops psychological problems of his/her own.

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