7 Lessons I’ve Learned As a Father of Someone with a Mental Illness


Helping someone with a mental illness is difficult.

When someone becomes physically sick, a family gathers around them. But mental disorders are not like physical ones and families — well, if you want to know how complicated relationships can be, consider a recent comment sent to me by a reader. She wrote that her family abandoned her because her parents were tired of having extra “drama” in their lives.

On the other end of the spectrum, I met a couple in Iowa who asked if I could help them find their son. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was homeless. Occasionally, he would telephone. While his mother was happy to know he was alive, he would always end their calls with hurtful rants.

My relationship with my son has not always been easy. Those of you who have read my book know I was forced to lie about him threatening me to get him taken into a hospital rather than put in jail. During a later break, I called the police and my son was shot twice with a Taser. These events can play havoc on father-son relationships.

So what have I learned?

1. Mental illnesses are serious business. You can’t take an aspirin and wake up in the morning healed. It took more than five years for my son to become stable. Parents and others need to realize there are no quick fixes. Hang in there — there will be many highs and lows on your journey.

2. Accept a new normal. Saying you want your child to go back to the way he was is counter-productive. You need to understand the person you love has a mental illness. Most people can and do recover. But this journey will change you both. There’s no going back to the past.

3. Learn to trust your own judgment. No one knows the person you love better than you. While there are amazing, devoted and really smart mental health professionals, they do not have to live with the person who is sick.

I’ve had people tell me I needed to get tough with Kevin when he was psychotic and not help him until he hit rock bottom. I remember wondering: What does that mean exactly? After all, he was arrested and shot with a Taser? Short of allowing him to go homeless — what’s left? Suicide?

Other times, I know my anxiety about pushing him too hard has led to me being an enabler.

I’ve turned to professionals for help numerous times and fortunately have gotten good advice. But I’ve also known some therapists who have no business advising anyone. One actually put Kevin in harm’s way because of a rushed diagnosis.

A counselor at the Miami-Dade County Jail told me his sister, who had schizophrenia, had seen more than a dozen doctors and literally hundreds of therapists during her 30-year struggle. Yet, the family was seen as part of the problem, ignored and often treated rudely. “But who was there when all of those others moved on?” he asked me rhetorically. “In the end, all my sister had was me.” You must be resilient. Trust your heart.

4. Educate yourself. Think of mental illness as a formable enemy and realize you need knowledge to prevent it from destroying your loved one’s life. Join a national mental health group, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness or Mental Health America. Learn about Crisis Intervention Team training and if law enforcement in your community has CIT officers you can call. Become knowledgable about medications and alternatives. Obtain the tools you need to help someone you love.

Two sources that have helped me are Dr. Xavier Amador’s book, “I’m Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Family-to-Family course. Another advantage of joining a mental health group is you meet others on the same road. Learn from them.

5. Realize mental illnesses impact your entire family. Siblings can be jealous of all the attention given to someone with a disorder. Encouraging them to learn about mental illness and including them in helping someone recover can ease those feelings.

6. Understand your own limitations. This is perhaps the most difficult lesson to learn. Sometimes, no matter what you do and how hard you try, you will not be successful. If your child had cancer and you couldn’t save them, would you blame yourself? A parent can’t always fix things. This doesn’t mean you give up, although some do.

7. Understand while you’re hurt because you love a person who is ill, that person is the one with the mental illness. What he/she is going through can be more horrific than what most of us will ever imagine. Learn to listen, treat them with respect, try to build trust and when possible, become a partner — make sure they are part of the solution and not seen as a problem that needs to be fixed.

So what’s the answer? There is no singular one. Every person is unique, every family is different, every mental break brings challenges. I’ve learned that for me, ultimately, I must have hope. I must believe recovery is possible. I must believe because without hope, I know recovery will never happen.

You have to believe a better day is coming tomorrow.

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Pete Earley and his son, Kevin. photo source: peteearley.com

This piece originally appeared on Pete Earley’s website


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