How I Struggled With Mental Illness In My Family And What To Do If You're Struggling With It In Yours

During this holiday season, many look forward to the comfort of family and loved ones. But for those with family members who suffer from mental illness, the holidays may bring anxiety and an uncertainty about what to expect from unpredictable, bizarre, and even psychotic family members. We are often taught to love our family in spite of their shortcomings. They are family after all. But what do we do with those unacceptable, unspoken feelings of disappointment that plague us when our family members suffer from an elusive condition known as mental illness.  It would be preferable if they were just physically sick —people get that. But how do we explain when a family member is mentally sick? How do we answer that cutting question, “What happened?”

Rachel Collage{My sister as a child. She still is one of the most beautiful little girls I have ever seen.}

These are the issues that I have struggled with for years. My older sister, Rachel, was a sweet baby who grew into a beautiful, care free child. But as she approached adolescence, something happened that my parents did not quite understand. Once described as the life of the party, she became different. “Oh she’s just quiet” or “She’s just introverted,” some speculated. But it was more than that. She was struggling with a mental illness that was not easily identifiable. Nor was it easy to accept.

Oh how I longed to have that cool, older sister I can look up to and tell my intimate secrets. Instead I cringed when someone asked me about her. I was embarrassed and had no idea what mental illness she suffered from or why. And truth be told, I didn’t accept that she had a mental illness. After all, she was born “normal.” She just needed to “get it together” and act “normal.” There were times I blamed by parents for not doing enough. I even questioned God. Why would He give me a sister who couldn’t function in the role of a sister?  But now I know better.

Rachel and us

{This is me with my older sister and mom in the 80's.My sister was in high school. She rarely smiled by this time.}

Mental illness is not a condition that any family member would hand pick or ask for. But it is something that happens. Family members must come to terms with this, and decide how they are going to deal with it. Otherwise it will rip families apart, making it difficult for them to be supportive of the emotionally fragile family member who needs it most.

Although my family has never gotten a clear diagnosis for my sister, I believe she suffers from severe depression with psychosis. While it is an ongoing challenge, my life experience, my psychological training, and my faith have taught me a lot about how to deal with my sister’s mental illness. Here are some issues I’ve had to address.

How did this happen?

This is a common question, yet very difficult to answer. Many factors contribute to whether or not a person develops mental illness. This includes genetics,  psychological functioning, and environment. People may have a genetic or psychological predisposition to a disorder but that does not mean that they will develop the disorder. For instance, just because a person has a genetic predisposition to an anxiety disorder does not mean that the person will have an anxiety disorder. The person’s psychological functioning (e.g., sense of control over life events) and environment (e.g., turbulent vs. stable) play a large role in determining whether or not the anxiety disorder presents itself. My sister was a well-functioning child who never made it through the turbulent time that often accompanies adolescence. I believe she had a predisposition to a mood disorder, and with the onslaught of negative thinking (i.e., poor psychological functioning) and her environment’s inability to understand or adequately address her disorder, her mental illness developed and she deteriorated. If you are uncertain as to what contributed to your family member’s mental illness, it is likely a complex mix of factors, and it is the job of treating professionals to address these areas.

How do I deal with negative feelings about my family member’s mental illness?

Even now I struggle with feeling like the sister I was supposed to have was robbed from me. It is certainly a loss, and as with any loss, come feelings of loneliness, disappointment, and even resentment. These negative feelings must be addressed and resolved, otherwise they are likely to lead to self-centeredness and entitlement, and can negatively impact other relationships. While I would have loved to have an emotionally healthy sister, I don’t, and it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong with me or that I am mentally ill too. There are plenty of individuals with mentally ill family members, others with physically ill family members, and still others who have lost loved ones to tragic deaths. None of us are exempt from pain. I’ve learned that God often uses our pain to make us stronger, and thrust us into our destiny. In fact, our pain and weaknesses are often so intertwined with our successes that we cannot have one without the other.

How do I interact with my family member who struggles with mental illness?

I’ve learned that we have no choice but to accept the person, heavy heart and all. For years I tried to change my sister and make her into what I thought she should be. I yelled, I tried talking but none of it worked because she had social-emotional deficits and could not always think reasonably. It is very difficult for family members to understand the limitations of family members who suffer from mental illness. We are so emotionally involved with family, and at times, their success is wrapped up in our own happiness and sense of satisfaction. But once we accept their limitations, we will free ourselves. That is, we must let people be who they are because once we do, we release the disappointment and resentment we feel, and are more fully able to be who we are.

Will my family member ever get better?

This is a complicated question because prognosis depends on the nature or chronicity of the illness, the type or quality of treatment the person receives, and the person’s ability or willingness to participate in treatment. With more severe illnesses such as schizophrenia, there is no cure, and treatment focuses on helping the person manage their symptoms. Generally speaking, however, mental health disorders are not viewed as something that is “curable” in the same manner we view physical disorders. This is largely because mental health functioning is not perceived as a categorical phenomenon, but rather it falls along a continuum. That is, even mentally healthy people may struggle with mental or emotional distress at times. While their symptoms may not be severe enough to qualify as a disorder, the longer a person struggles with emotional distress or poor mood, the higher the risk for developing a mental health disorder. My faith teaches me that everyone, even those with mental illness, have a destiny and purpose, and often times it is up to family members and treating professionals to assist  vulnerable individuals with living within their purpose as best as they can.

How can I ensure that my family member gets the appropriate treatment?

My sister wasn’t treated for a long time, and I’m not sure she has ever gotten appropriate treatment. My parents, as loving and supportive as they are, never fully understood my sister’s condition, or how to treat her. They did not have experience with mental illness, and relied on well-meaning doctors who gave tentative diagnoses and non-specific recommendations. Unfortunately, mental health treatment is not an exact science, and unless the person is presenting with a well-known mental disorder, a person’s mental illness can often be misdiagnosed or go undetected for a long time. This is the case with my sister who had a tendency to remain isolated and kept her thoughts and feelings to herself. Once family members detect a problem, it is important to get an evaluation from a licensed professional, and be actively involved in the treatment to ensure that key issues are being addressed. Treating professionals rely on informed family members who can offer valuable pieces to the puzzle. Sometimes it might be necessary to go through several treating professionals before finding the right one, but do not be discouraged. The important thing is to keep searching for answers and follow recommended treatment. Many times we lose hope when we see no change, but this is the time to communicate with treating professionals regarding our concerns so that treatment can be beneficial to the family.

Hopefully these tips have been helpful to you. Dealing with mental illness is an ongoing struggle, but it must be addressed. If you have experiences or learned valuable lessons as a result of family mental illness, please feel free to share them here.