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Coping with Mental Illness in the Family

Caring for a loved one with mental illness can be exhausting ---and not just in a physical way. The emotional toll of, say, tolerating the mood swings of someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, or watching out for the well-being of a person with a potentially deadly eating disorder like Anorexia Nervosa, can be so stressful, you might end up with a mental health condition yourself! But given that understanding and support from the family is integral in helping those with mental illness recover (or at least have some semblance of normalcy in their life), it’s important that we beef up on resources on how to cope with mental illness in the family.

If you have a parent, spouse, child or relative with mental illness, know that you’re not alone. Actually, it’s highly likely that you’ll encounter mental illness, as the World Health Organization estimates that 1 in every 4 people (or 25% of the population!) will develop one or more mental health illness in their life. Depression, for example, has become very common, especially among women.

There are many things you can do to make things more manageable, not just for your loved one with mental illness, but for the whole family. Consider the following tips in coping with mental illness in the family:

Get informed. Start by getting all the information you can on your loved one’s condition. Each condition is different, and will affect different people in different ways. Some mental disorders are more difficult to manage than others. Take the case of psychosis, where the patient suffers from distortions of reality that may sometimes compel them to hurt others or themselves. Or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, where your loved one may not even appreciate all the tolerance and understanding you’re providing. But if you know what to expect, you can better cope with what is required from you. You can also set personal boundaries by nurturing realistic expectations regarding the prognosis of your loved one’s condition.

Know if you’re at-risk. Few people know this, but mental health conditions have a biological basis --- some are caused by an imbalance in important chemicals in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin which regulates mood and affect. As such, mental disorders can be inherited; if you have a loved one with a mental health condition, perhaps you’re at-risk too. There are also child-rearing conditions that make mental health conditions more likely to surface. Autocratic parenting styles, where kids feel stifled and controlled, are bedrocks for developing addictions, depression, and anxiety disorders.

Communicate to family members the nature of the illness. It’s a myth that you can hide anything from members of the household. Even if your love one with mental illness does his or her best to keep the struggle private, for sure someone will have an inkling that something is wrong. Young children, in particular, are very sensitive --- even babies can tell if they’re being held differently by their main caregiver. It’s better to discuss the problem in the open, in ways appropriate to the age and maturity of the listener. This way, your family can bond together in helping the person with mental illness recover wellness back.

De-stress regularly. This tip can’t be emphasized enough! If there is mental illness in the family, it’s important that family members take some time off for some well-deserved self-care. It doesn’t make you a bad parent, child or spouse if you choose not to let your loved one’s condition take over your life. Make sure you still eat at regular times, get adequate sleep, and take plenty of fluids. Have an outlet for all the fatigue, frustration, overwhelm and yes, even anger and resentment of the situation. Establish a support system. At the end of the day, you can’t give your loved one with mental illness the care he or she deserves when you’re already burning out.

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