impact of mental illness on different family members

Parents

Regardless of the child’s age, parents are often the ones who seek out services and help for their child, sometimes having to deal with a system that is reluctant to acknowledge them as a partner in the recovery process.

Even though research shows that families are not to blame for their child’s mental illness, it is sometimes difficult to overcome this feeling. Understanding that mental illnesses are medical illnesses can help reduce or eliminate the guilt that some parents feel.

Parents may also be caring for other children and worry about how they are coping. The increased attention that mental illness often requires may direct time away from other children.

Spouses

Living with a spouse who has a mental illness can place strain on the existing relationship. The spouse of an ill person may experience guilt, shame and may blame themselves. The couple’s social life and physical intimacy may change. Both partners may feel grief for the loss of the life they had imagined together.

“View your spouse’s illness as something you both have to fight as a team. Try to focus on what is best for both of you.”
– The Other Half – Spouses of Bi-polar Sufferers, My Mental Trampoline

Siblings

The onset of a sibling’s mental illness can cause other siblings confusion, stress, anger, sadness or fear for their brother’s or sister’s well-being. Siblings may experience stigma, family life that revolves around their sibling living with mental illness, personal shame or ‘survivor’s guilt’ (feeling bad because they are healthy and doing well). They may also fear that they too, or their children, will develop mental illness. Some may fear that they will one day have to take on the role of primary support. Siblings sometimes benefit from counselling, which may be accessed through their family member’s health professional(s), school, university, employer, and/or family resource centre.

Mental illness can lead to a variety of emotional effects for brothers and sisters of the sibling living with mental illness. For example, they may feel:

Siblings’ experiences are unique and depend on a number of factors, such as age, how close they are to their sibling, the birth order of siblings, and the ill sibling’s willingness to get treatment. How other members of the family respond to and deal with the situation will also impact how the siblings deal with their brother or sister’s illness.

If siblings are supported, they are more likely to succeed in reaching their own goals and to contribute to the quality of life of their brother or sister. Siblings may need encouragement to ask questions and to share their feelings. They may need reassurance about their own mental health. It is important that siblings participate in activities and relationships outside the family and to develop their own future plans.

“When my son was ill and needed to be hospitalized, my daughter, who was only 7 at the time, felt very afraid and lonely. We were in the middle of a crisis and needed to go back and forth to the hospital. One night she made a mailbox for each of us out of a freezer bag and hung it from our bedroom doors with a piece of string. I promised her that no matter what, if she wrote me a note and put it in my mailbox, I would write her one back and put it in her mailbox. This didn’t take much time everyday and it made an incredible difference in how she felt. She and I still have the notes we wrote each other.”

Young children

Young children experience a variety of emotions and reactions to a parent’s or sibling’s illness. They may be scared and confused about the changes they see in their family member. Providing them with age-appropriate information about their family member’s illness helps to relieve their fears. Children should be encouraged to talk about their feelings. It is important to let children know their feelings are normal. You may also want to use these talks as an opportunity to discuss ways the children can cope with their feelings. Children often feel isolated and alone. They are better able to deal with issues when they have the support of a caring person who listens to their feelings.

Communication” includes more on talking with children and youth about mental illness.

There are a number of ways to support children and help adjust to living with someone with a mental illness.

Adult children of a parent living with mental illness

Growing up with a family member living with mental illness can have an impact that lasts into a person’s adulthood. It can affect how the person feels about themselves, their personal identity and self- esteem. It can also lead to strengths. These include:

“Adult children reported they had become better and stronger people. Their experience of growing up with a parent living with mental illness led them to develop greater empathy and compassion, more tolerance and understanding, healthier attitudes and priorities, and greater appreciation of life.” – D. T. Marsh from Children of Parents with Mental Illness 2, edited by V. Cowling, 2004.