• Linda Nguyen

Caring for a Family Member with a Mental Illness


It can be challenging to suspect or learn that a family member has a mental illness. It can be very stressful and overwhelming. You may feel shocked, upset, angry, confused or guilty. You may have many questions, and you may want to find the reasoning behind any diagnosis. How did this happen? Did you do something wrong? Was there something you could have done differently? How long have they been struggling? Do they blame themselves?

There is not a simple answer to any of these questions. Remember that neither you nor your loved one is at fault. Sometimes, there was nothing that could have prevented the onset of a mental illness. Many factors contribute to a mental health issue, such as genetics, environmental influences, and life experiences.

It may take some time to process these feelings and thoughts. However, when you can, being there for your loved one can contribute significantly to their mental health management and recovery. The degree of your involvement may vary depending on who the family member is and their level of functioning. In the cases of children, adults may have to make many of the decisions for them. The same can be true for those whose mental illness is severe and debilitating.


The best thing you can do is be there to support and care for your loved one.

Show them compassion, empathy, and understanding. Help them advocate for their wellbeing. Encourage them to seek professional help. Having family support can be fundamental to address, manage, and recover from a mental illness.


Pay attention to early signs and symptoms.

Family members are usually the first to notice a change in their loved one’s mood, functioning, behaviour or wellbeing. If you sense that something is different or unusual, try to pay closer attention. Some common early signs and symptoms include:

Social Withdrawal Is your loved one avoiding spending time with others? Do they seem to be isolating themselves? Do they spend more time than usual alone?

Issues at school or work

Is your loved one having difficulties at school or work? Do they seem more stressed or overwhelmed than usual? Have there been any comments from teachers or peers? Has their co-workers or employer expressed concerns? Are they skipping school or missing work?

Changes in sleep patterns Are they sleeping more than usual? Are they finding it difficult to get out of bed? Do they have trouble falling or staying asleep? Do they go for extended amounts of time without sleeping?

Emotionality

Are they feeling frequent and intense emotions, such as sadness, anger or anxiousness? Are they feeling emotionally “numb”? Are they having a hard time expressing their feelings? Are they expressing that they feel sad, hopeless, or helpless?

Changes in behaviours

Are they acting differently? Do they seem to lost interest in things they usually enjoy? Has their appetite changed? Are they avoiding certain people or situations? Are they acting more impulsively or carelessly? Have they been using unhealthy ways to cope? Have they been engaging in excess alcohol or substance use?

While these signs do not necessarily indicate a mental health issue, they need to be taken seriously. Recognizing these early signs and symptoms allows you to best support your loved ones. It allows for early intervention from a mental health professional. Taking these steps can prevent symptoms from worsening or more serious issues from arising.


Have a conversation about your concerns

Talking about mental health issues may be uncomfortable at first, but it is an essential first step. Talk to your loved one. They may not even be aware of any issues. For some, they may attempt to deny or minimize their symptoms. They may not even want to talk about it at all and try to push you away. Express your concern and reassure them that you care. They may need some time to process their feelings before they are ready to talk. Be patient with them. Listen to what they have to say. Do not judge or disregard their situation. Refrain from giving advice or trying to fix things, which can often cause more harm than good. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is just listen. Remind them that you are there to love and support them.


Seeking additional support

If a loved one has a mental illness, it will likely affect the entire family. Openly communicating within the family can facilitate understanding and strengthen the support system. Consider seeking help from a mental health professional such as a doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist. Mental health issues do not go away on their own. When left untreated, conditions can become more severe and persistent. A mental health professional will be able to determine whether there is a mental health concern. They can assess and diagnose the appropriate conditions. From that point, they can create a treatment plan for mental health management and improvements. They can teach valuable skills and provide useful tools and resources. In some cases, other people may have to be aware of the condition. Such as teachers and/or employers when requesting accommodations.


What else can you do?

Learn all you can about their mental health issue. Many stereotypes and misconceptions exist about mental illness. It is essential to be well-informed on possible symptoms, challenges and treatment options. There is substantial information available online, but not all of it is reliable. At the end of this article, there will be some recommendations of where to find information. These sources are an excellent place to start. However, remember that every single person’s experience is unique. A diagnosis is only useful to a certain extent. Two people with the same condition can present very differently, have different triggers and underlying issues. To better understand your loved ones’ challenges, either ask them directly or, when appropriate, discuss it with their care provider.

Ask them what they need. Hold space for your loved ones to share their difficulties. Sometimes, they will just need someone to be there, to listen. Be compassionate, supportive, understanding and patient with them. Show them empathy and validate their experiences. For some, physical touch can be very comforting, such as holding hands or hugging. It can also help identify possible triggers and ways to avoid or limit situations that can cause distress. Be considerate of the extent of involvement and support they are comfortable with receiving. Younger children will need adults to make certain decisions for them. In contrast, adults may want to have agency when it comes to their mental health.


Help them stay accountable. Help them continue to make and attend treatment appointments. Remind them to do any counselling homework. It can be helpful to set reminders on their phones or calendars. Support them in using healthy coping skills. Encourage and remind them to continually engage in self-care. Remind them to take any prescribed medication. For some, it may be hard to be consistent with their medication. Others may deliberately avoid their medication, likely due to unwanted side effects. In these cases, it is best to consult with a doctor who can explore alternative pharmaceutical treatments.


Taking care of yourself

Caring for a family member with a mental illness takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. There will be times where you may feel stressed, overwhelmed or stressed. You must take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Recognize that your needs are equally important, and by meeting them, you are can support and care for your loved one better. There are have limitations to how much you can give, so reach out for help or support if you need it. Ensure that your loved one has other forms of support they can rely on, such as other family members, friends, and mental health professionals.


It may be helpful to seek counselling either for yourself or for your family. If appropriate, having the whole family participating in counselling can be beneficial. When one family member is living with a mental illness, it can affect the entire family dynamic. Other family members may be able to offer additional insight. At the same time, counselling can help family members learn the best way to show their support. One other thing to consider is joining a support group for family members or caregivers of those with mental illnesses. In these groups, you will be among others who share similar experiences and emotions.


Resources

Information about mental illnesses:

Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA):

Understanding Mental Illness

Mental Health Information (Calgary)

Mental Health Archives

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH):

Public Health Information From A Trusted Source American Psychiatric Association - What Is Mental Illness?

Mayo Clinic - Mental illness - Symptoms and causes


Support for caregivers:

Families supporting Adults with Mental Illness (FAMI) Alberta

Caregiver Connections Online - Edmonton

Caregivers Alberta – Caring for Caregivers

Alberta Caregiver College - Alberta Health Services


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