Mental Illness Diagnosis? It can actually be a chance to grow closer as a family
Our family has learned, by taking time for self-care, offering balanced support, building a support network, considering family therapy, and learning to communicate effectively, the changes that accompany mental illness can bring your family closer together.
by Grace Hansen
I grew up in a family where half of us experienced major depression, and we all felt the darkness and heaviness that accompanies it. In addition to clinical depression, my nuclear family members have also been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
That sounds like a lot, but we have been very fortunate to grow into a warm, close-knit family, despite these serious illnesses (and maybe, in part, because of them).
The other day, for example, I was struck by how peaceful we are when we’re all together. We were trying to decide what to do after eating dinner, and we each had a different opinion. Despite the altered neural circuits and malfunctioning limbic systems involved, we respectfully made our cases and spent a fun evening sharing blankets and chocolate as we laughed at The Dick Van Dyke Show together. We had to practice to get to this point, and we don’t always get along perfectly, but our mental illnesses have made it necessary to be deliberate about the way we treat each other, and that has made all the difference in the world.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a mental illness, and you’re afraid your family will never be the same, you’re right. Mental health diagnoses affect every member of the family profoundly. But by learning the value of self-care, offering balanced support, building a support network, considering family therapy, and learning to communicate effectively, the changes that accompany mental illness can bring your family closer together.
Learn the value of self-care
I asked my dad his thoughts on how to grow closer as a family when mental illness is in the picture. He said, “Growing closer in the midst of affliction requires a change of paradigm, an entirely new way of perceiving one’s situation. . . We have a mental map we use when life is normal. We require a different map when life is abnormal.”
When life is “normal,” our maps tell us to work hard, go about our business, play on the weekends, and we’ll be fine. But when we are facing a mental illness—as caregivers or as people suffering from mental illness—periodic rest and recreation likely won’t be enough.
Deliberate, effective self-care is vital for individuals to recover and for families to become and remain close. As a person suffering from a mental illness, self-care might mean meditating or watching a movie that always makes you laugh. As a caregiver, self-care might mean allowing other family members to help you or scheduling regular time to pursue a hobby.
Growing closer in the midst of affliction requires a change of paradigm, an entirely new way of perceiving one’s situation.
Offer balanced support
As caregivers, we’re often tempted to do everything for our suffering loved one. After all, any effort we can make to ease their suffering makes us feel better, and if it helps them at all, the work seems worth it.
“But taking on complete responsibility for him or her isn’t healthy for either of you,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). “Individuals with serious mental illnesses are more likely to thrive when they are allowed to take appropriate responsibility for their own lives.”
There may be times when your loved one needs your complete support. But pay attention and keep an active conversation going. There may be times when independence is exactly what your loved one needs.
“Instead of driving your loved one to every appointment or errand, for instance, help him or her get a bus pass and learn the route,” the APA says. “Rather than preparing every meal for your loved one, teach him or her how to cook some simple, healthy meals.”
Build a support network of people you trust
Support from within the family is vital, but support from trusted outside individuals is also important to help your family build that support from within.
Dorothy O’Donnell, whose daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 5, urges parents of children with mental illness to seek support.
“You may feel concerned about labeling your child or opening up to strangers about sensitive topics, but your child’s teacher can’t help if he or she doesn’t know what’s going on,” she says.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.” My family has found that as we’ve opened up to trustworthy friends, they have largely been supportive and empathetic. Many of them have experienced mental illness themselves or have supported a loved one with mental illness.
“Deciding who to tell and how much to reveal is also a personal choice,” O’Donnell says. “I’ve found that being open about [my daughter’s] condition with friends, family members, and school personnel has had mainly positive results.”
Consider family therapy or a support group
Sometimes, there’s nothing like a qualified third party to help you understand your family dynamic and get to the root of problems you’re experiencing. Support groups or family therapy situations allow families to “talk about and process their experiences.” As you receive the help you need, your home life becomes more pleasant and manageable.
Developing good communication skills will improve all of your relationships, but they’re especially important when mental illness is in the mix.
Learn to communicate effectively
“Developing good communication skills will improve all of your relationships, but they’re especially important when mental illness is in the mix,” according to NAMI. “Effective communication is largely about building good habits.”
Here are three communication tips from NAMI to help you build those good habits.
Give Your Perspective
Use “I” statements instead of describing perceived behavior. For example, instead of saying, “You’re not listening,” say “I am concerned because you don’t seem interested in what I’m saying.”
Say Exactly What You Mean
Hinting at what you want is never a good idea, no matter who you’re talking to. But we do it all the time without even realizing!
Instead of saying, “You never do anything with me anymore,” say, “It’s been a long time since we cooked together, and I miss doing that. Would you help me make dinner tonight?”
“State the facts of the situation, because usually, that’s an area in which you can agree,” NAMI suggests.
For example, you could say something like, “These forms are due back to your school tomorrow, and you haven’t filled them out yet.” And then add exactly what you’d like the person to do and how that action would make you feel: “Please read and sign them before we have lunch. I’d feel relieved knowing they’re done, and we can enjoy the rest of the afternoon knowing you’re ready for school.”
As hard days turn into hard weeks and months, it can seem like the joy or peace you’re seeking for your family will never materialize. But when you think long-term, it’s paradoxically easier to see the small victories in everyday life.
“Define joy for you,” my dad said, “Not what you think others experience as joy.” This takes some pressure off of you to produce picture-perfect days and instead helps each family member to be introspective about what they really need and want.
When you think long-term as you learn the value of self-care, offer balanced support, build a support network, consider family therapy, and learn to communicate effectively, your family will grow closer together.
Grace Hansen is a freelance writer whose goal is to empower readers to proactively pursue their goals. Her favorite topics to write about are mental health, family, and delicious food. In her free time, Grace can be found hiking, planning dream vacations, and strumming on the ukulele.