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When Mental Illness Affects the Whole Family


When someone is living with a mental illness, it not only affects that person. It touches his or her whole family. Family members may be sad, confused and scared. They feel helpless watching their spouse, child or parent struggle with debilitating symptoms.

There may be mood swings, depression, mania or thoughts of suicide. Severe anxiety, obsessive compulsions, phobias or anger. Life will never be the same as before the illness erupted. I know, as my mom had major depression and anorexia. I had panic disorder. My daughter had panic attacks.

If a relative is in denial about having a mental health condition, then it may seem impossible to help. It can be exhausting when that person won’t accept medical advice or refuses to take medication.

Family members may feel as if they’re swimming in a turbulent ocean. The rip tides and undertows are strong, and the currents move them to places they don’t want to be. The only way to stay safe is to get out of the water. To accept that it cannot be controlled, but acceptance is a difficult place to reach.

I’m taking a class offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “Family to Family” is a 12-week course that provides education and support to families affected by mental illness.

I was moved by this letter, written and provided by NAMI.

Dear Family:

This is a plea for your compassion, understanding and patience. We have all just come through an episode of my mental illness. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve done the best I know how and so have you.

For this, I thank you. I’m exhausted. Maybe I look all right to you, but inside I’m wounded. Even the least stress, the least effort, is overwhelming.

I need to sleep a lot and not do much at all.  This may go on for quite some time. It may be hard for you to see me this way. You may feel it’s your duty to help me “snap out of it.” Please, be gentle. Let me heal.

There are three things I’d appreciate you do for me:

1. Learn about my illness.

This is an illness of the brain and body, just like any other disease. It affects my ability to think, feel and behave. Those effects may have been difficult for you to deal with. I’m sorry.

2. Help me find effective treatment.

This takes patience and persistence. In my present state, I may not have the energy to follow through. I need you to advocate for me, until we find people and medications that help.

3. Listen with an open heart and mind.

Don’t try to advise me. Just listen while I work this out for myself. Your trust and understanding will help me feel confident enough to decide when I’m able to step back into life activities.

Thank you for your support and compassion. It will make my path to recovery more smooth and sure.

With thanks and hope,

Your Loved One

Source of letter: Sita Diehl, co-author, Bridges Consumer Peer Education Course, NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program, 2013. Letter has been edited for length.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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