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Ingrid Blaufarb Hughes
Ingrid Blaufarb Hughes
Family Dynamics

When a Family You Know Is Hit by Mental Illness

There are ways you can offer support.

CCO Public Domain
Source: CCO Public Domain

A rule of thumb is to respond as you would if someone in your friend’s family had been diagnosed with another serious illness, like cancer. Of course there may be even more anxiety, less understanding and certainly there’s stigma connected to mental illness, which complicates the picture for everyone. But your friend’s life will be disrupted in similar ways. The family won’t know at first what to expect.

When someone has just learned that a relative is dealing with mental illness, he may be frightened and sad and not sure what to expect. His feelings may be raw. He may be consulting with a psychiatrist, visiting the hospital to see his relative, or taking care of the relative at home. None of this will be easy. Your job is to listen and accept your friend’s feelings, without trying to talk them away.

When you’re with your friend, ask if she wants to talk about the person living with mental illness or would prefer to relax in your company and take her mind off her worries for a little while. If she does want to talk, practice listening sympathetically. Unless you are a mental health professional and are asked for your thoughts, avoid giving advice.

Also avoid reassurances like “Everything will be all right.” Especially after a young person has had a first break, the possibilities run the gamut from full recovery to a lifetime limited by illness or even an early death. Nobody can know how this will turn out. Also avoid stories of other cases that seem to you similar.

If you yourself are uncomfortable or even frightened by mental illness, recognize that you may not be the best person to help your friend. If you feel able to support your friend, begin with a call, or a message. Ask what you can do to help. You can suggest that you visit her at home, meet for coffee, or go for a walk together. You can offer to deliver a hot meal, take care of young children, run errands, or make phone calls. If you know other friends who might want to help, and your friend would like to hear from them, let them know what’s going on.

Keep in mind that a parent or sibling may feel responsible. If your friend shows signs of self-blame, remind him that mental illness is a disorder of the brain, not caused by relationships. If he feels he should have noticed something was wrong earlier, you can say, “You did your best.”

Emphasize any positive developments without trivializing the problem. If the hospital has a good reputation, or a nurse or doctor sounds helpful, and best of all, if the person with illness seems to be responding to treatment, you can comment in a positive way.

Over time, your friend’s relative may improve. If the person with mental illness is sent home after a week or two, your friend will have to adjust to living with them. Sometimes the illness will become chronic. You may find that the offer to go for a walk or help out in other ways is still welcome. But don’t overextend yourself. You can’t be helpful if you’re feeling put upon.

About the Author
Ingrid Blaufarb Hughes

Ingrid Blaufarb Hughes is the author of Losing Aaron.

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