How mental illness affects families
Parents often feel that they are the ones responsible for what happens to their children. They feel guilty. This sense of guilt, combined with their habit of controlling family life, motivates them to find a solution at all costs. When they realize that there’s no magic solution, they experience feelings of helplessness and despair over their child’s suffering. They are also very sensitive to outside opinions that could cause them to be singled out if something happens to one of their children. Parents also suffer from seeing the dreams they had for their children crumble.
The bond between siblings is very strong and permanent. They are playmates as well as partners in learning about life. When a sibling suddenly can’t keep up, or falls victim to a catastrophe, it has a big impact on the other siblings. There is a high level of solidarity among siblings. The suffering of one sibling is keenly felt by the others, who also fear a similar fate. Like parents, siblings also feel guilty. They fear they have been too annoying or jealous, or that they have not protected their sibling enough.
Siblings experience difficult emotions. Around their friends, they are often ashamed of their sibling with the illness. They don’t invite friends home anymore, preferring to go out instead. They are often jealous of the sibling who, because of their illness, gets all their parents’ attention. They feel neglected. They are also ashamed of these feelings of jealousy and anger toward someone who is suffering. They feel guilty for being well.
Conflicts may arise between siblings. Some feel a sense of responsibility and are called upon to step in for their parents. At the same time, it makes them anxious. Others turn to escapism and try to do as little as possible. These different ways of reacting cause arguments, create friction and can sometimes lead to bonds that remain broken for a long time.
When we get married, we vow that it’s “for better or for worse.” No one imagines that the worst could actually happen. Yet, this is how people feel when their partner suddenly finds themselves struggling with mental illness.
The healthy partner also experiences guilt. They accuse themselves of not having been a good enough partner and not having supported their partner with the illness enough. They wonder if they have problems too, since they attracted someone who has problems. They feel guilty that their children are suffering from the situation.
They feel trapped by suddenly having to take on all the family tasks. They feel resentful toward their partner and, in turn, feel guilty about that. Quite often, extended family members get involved; some refusing to see the healthy partner’s fatigue and limitations, others encouraging divorce. As a result of this pressure, the partner feels misunderstood and alone.
Children who have a parent with a mental illness are often forced to take on a parental role while they are still young. They should be the one being protected and yet they are the ones providing the protection. They should have time to play and be carefree, yet they have to be more serious than is called upon for their age. When faced with a parent’s illness, they often experience fear, uncertainty and confusion. Adults can find support and comfort from friends and professionals. They have access to many sources of information. Children, on the other hand, do not have access to the same resources, meaning they suffer alone. Sometimes, the adults around them are just as confused and do not understand how the illness is affecting the child. To protect them, they often keep them in the dark about what is really going on which only increases their confusion. Children also experience anger because their parent is not like other parents, and they do not receive the same attention as their peers. Like adults, they may also feel guilty.
Extended family, friends and neighbours
Uncles, cousins, grandparents, nephews and other relatives form the extended family. Like friends and neighbours, these people are affected to varying degrees by the illness of a loved one. Their attitudes can range from complete rejection to interference. Reasons for these attitudes may include ignorance and fear of catching the illness, having to get involved, receiving an unwelcome response or simply not knowing what to say. Some feel free to lay blame or give unwelcome advice.
While it is unrealistic to expect to convince everyone, we should not be discouraged either. The right amount of information and patience can change misguided mindsets into more accepting attitudes.
The person with the illness
In addition to suffering from the effects of the illness, individuals suffer greatly in their relationships with others. When those close to the person are asked what their loved one fears most about the illness, the majority will tell you that their biggest fear is becoming a burden. They don’t want to cause trouble or worry or become dependent on someone else.
People who are ill fear imposing additional responsibilities on others when they are unable to fulfil their responsibilities. They feel guilty and useless and fear losing their purpose and identity. This situation often causes depression or fills them with anger. They believe that what is happening to them is unfair and they rebel. These reactions, partly guided by temperament, are universal. Anyone who becomes disabled as a result of an accident or physical or mental illness experiences these same emotions.
Conflicts arise between the person with the illness and those around them regarding roles and responsibilities. They may feel that those around them are doing too much or not enough. There may be disagreement about who can do what, because sometimes the person is better and feels able to do more. When the situation is unstable, it is often difficult to know where you stand, and this can be a major source of irritation. Over time, the person with the illness may lose confidence in their abilities, and the caregiver may resent what seems to be a thankless role.
“No man is an island.” We are happy when others rejoice in our happiness and success. However, we must also accept that others feel sad and sorry when something unfortunate happens. Close ties with our family and friends mean we do not always suffer alone.
So, what can you do? On one hand, you have to learn to help. On the other, you have to learn to receive help, which can be even more difficult. This requires skill, patience and humility. It requires exploring the emotions and reasons behind the relationship between a caregiver and the person being cared for. All this requires respect and compassion.
We have to learn about the illness and what has changed and not changed about the person as a result of it. We have to learn to recognize and accept each other’s limitations and, most importantly, not compare ourselves to one another. We must also avoid falling into the trap of competition: Who has it hardest? Who is carrying the heaviest burden? This competition over who’s suffering more shows a lack of respect for others and risks forcing them into solitude by making them feel misunderstood.
Source : Guide sur les maladies mentales à l’usage des familles
Text and research: Françoise Beauregard