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A Siblings' Guide to Mental Illness in the Family

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When a family member gets sick, change is inevitable. It effects relationships, topics of conversation, money, priorities — everything. But when a family member has a mental illness, this change can be charged with layers of stigma, misunderstanding and guilt. When you’re the sibling of someone who has a mental illness, it can be especially difficult to find your place.

When my brother was hospitalized my senior year of high school, my family started our journey through the mental health system. There’s been screaming, tears, multiple hospitalizations, scary moments and ones that have brought us closer. The situation is continually changing, with good days and bad days, good months and bad months. We’re still trying to figure it out; I’m still trying to figure it out. But after more than four years of experience, I can tell you what I’ve learned so far about being a sibling of someone who has a mental illness. Every family is different, but I hope some of these tips help.

1. Admit it sucks. 

Hey, this sucks. Your brother/sister is sick. Your parents’ focus has shifted. They can’t divide their attention as much as they used to and lot of things at home have changed. It’s OK — but it also sucks. Acknowledging it doesn’t make you ungrateful or a whiner. As long as you don’t get fixated on the negative, letting yourself acknowledge the suckiness every once in a while is perfectly OK.

2. Educate yourself. 

Learning about your sibling’s mental illness will only help you. This knowledge will give you tools when you’re not sure how to react or what to do. It’s also the best way to develop compassion. When you understand what your sibling is going through, you can separate behaviors that might “annoy” or confuse you with behaviors that are linked to their mental illness. In my case, it’s obsessive compulsive disorder. By learning about the nature of the disease, I could recognize my brother’s behaviors and be more understanding in moments that previously might have made me roll my eyes.

3. Confide in your friends. 

This part is hard. I still have trouble with it. But having at least someone outside your family to talk to is so important. Friends can give you a fresh perspective or at least offer a venue to vent. You don’t have to go waving your family issues for all to see, but telling stories — especially the hard ones — to at least one trusted friend is better than hoarding them, I promise.

4. Listen and talk.

My brother and I have always been really close, but I found it difficult after we starting facing his illness to open up to him about my own life. Whenever we talked on the phone, I would feel guilty about telling him good things and afraid to tell him about bad things. Nothing I was going through seemed like a big deal.

But what I realized too late was that my brother still cared about what was going on in my life. In fact, talking about other things besides his mental illness was a good distraction. When I open up to him about my life, it reminds him we still have a two-way relationship that I value.

5. Find your mental health tribe.

One of the best things I did in college was report about mental health issues in journalism classes. I sat in support groups, went to conferences and interacted with people regularly who were in the mental health world. Although I was always reporting on a story, I left with a sense of connection. These people got it like a lot of my friends, as much as they tried, couldn’t.

I also joined my university’s chapter of Active Minds, introducing me to a group of peers who were interested in mental health issues. You might not realize how much you bury in everyday conversations until you find a place where topics like mental health are accepted and discussed freely.

6. If you have mental health issues, address them.

Your sibling isn’t the only one who’s allowed to have problems. Because you’ve witnessed how bad mental illness can get, it’s easy to dismiss your own mental health problems. I used to think: Sure, I’m experiencing a lot of anxiety, but this is nothing compared to what I’ve seen. Clearly, I’m making a big deal out of nothing.

No. Wrong. Personal mental health doesn’t exist on a scale. Your mental health is what you’re experiencing, and it’s real and it’s still important, even if you’re not necessarily getting diagnosed with anything. Don’t compare your brain to your sibling’s, and get the help you need. In the end, taking care of yourself will actually make you a better sibling.

7. Come home.

Surprise! Being away from the situation doesn’t make it go away. While space can be healthy, showing up and spending time with your family is a really important way to show your support. Know your limits, but if you don’t live at home, visiting every once in a while could mean the world.

8. Give your parents a hug.

It’s easy to revert back to angsty teenager mode, but every once in a while, put that aside and give Mom or Dad some love. They probably need it.

9. Let go of guilt.

Survivor’s guilt is real, but obsessing over gene pools and questioning how you were “spared” is useless. Trust me, I’ve done it. It’s not fair your sibling has a mental illness, and it’s also not fair for you to feel guilty about it. Don’t feel bad about living the best life you can.

10. Don’t be a hero, be a sibling.

One of my favorite memories of college is breaking down crying at a party. I always had a hard time expressing emotions in front of my friends, and as I was losing it one of them started patting my head and said, over and over, “It’s OK, you’re not a robot. You’re not a robot.”

Be there for your sibling. Support them 100 percent. Help them when they’re down, and do everything you can for them.

But you are not a hero. You are not a martyr. You are not a robot. There’s no one easy fix for this, so don’t try to be the family savior. All our siblings expect from us is to be the best brother or sister we can be.


Originally published: July 30, 2015
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