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Coping with the Mental Illness of a Family Member

Coping with a mental illness of a family member is not easy. However hard you might pray for a normal family with normal family members it’s never going to happen and the sooner you come to realize that fact the easier it will be.

Mental illness can seriously rock a families health whether it is bi-polar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia or manic depression etc. Family members were never born with coping skills nor tools to manage. Just as motherhood is something you learn to cope with as you go along, so is mental illness. Each individual in the family might have a different way to deal with it and sometimes the person with mental illness can be oblivious to the pain he or she inflicts on the family and the affect the illness has on family dynamics.

Mental illness can improve though and one’s relationship to it within the family.

A family may experience frustration and anger dealing with their inability to help the sick person. This is normal and yet what is the best way to cope? How is it possible to constantly deal with their moods, having to remind them to take medication, assisting them in day to day life and yet trying to maintain your own life and be happy? Trying to help a mentally ill person can be emotional and physically draining.

The Counselling Centre at the University of Illinois (2015) states family members of a mentally ill person or persons might suffer from these symptoms :

Relationship difficulties:

  • difficulty in initiating relationships, and experiencing feelings of isolation
  • difficulty in romantic relationships
  • difficulty in maintaining friendships
  • difficulty with trusting self and others
  • difficulty balancing level of intimacy (excessive dependence or excessive avoidance)
  • difficulty balancing taking care of self and taking care of others

Emotional difficulties:

    • guilt and resentment
    • shame or embarrassment
    • depression
    • fear of inheriting a family member’s mental illness
    • fear of discovery by one’s partner and friends
    • angry outbursts or repressed anger
    • inability to deal with life unless it is chaotic or in crisis
    • overly responsible or irresponsible in many areas of life such as commitments, money, alcohol, relationships, etc.
    • self defeating thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors such as “My needs don’t matter; I’m not worth much; It’s no use trying.”
    • self defeating themes involving a tendency to equate achievement with worth as a person, such as: ”Maybe I can matter if I can excel at something, be perfect in school, my job, my relationships. But if I fail, I’m worthless and it’s terrible.”
How You Can Help Yourself:

1. Acknowledge that you have a family member with a mental illness and the effects this may have on you.

      • acknowledge previously unacceptable feelings such as anger, shame, guilt, etc.
      • grieve the parental or familial support you never received.
      • remember that you are not responsible for causing your parent’s problems or for fixing his/her condition.

2. Develop new ways of taking care of yourself.

      • recognize your own legitimate needs and begin taking care of them
      • recognize the stressors in your life, and learn ways of managing them.
      • replace negative thoughts with more positive statements: ”I am a worthwhile person. This truth does not depend on my successes or failures. My life has ups and downs, but my worth does not change.”

3. Develop new ways of relating to others.

      • recognize old unhealthy family patterns of communicating, and practice new ways of relating to parents and other family members. This may include setting and enforcing new boundaries and being respectful of your own limits.
      • recognize the difficulties you have with relationships, and learn new ways of relating to others.
      • appreciate and enjoy stability in your relationships, recognizing that relationships don’t have to be defined by crisis or dependency.

4. Explore other resources.

I feel boundaries as mentioned above must be especially noted. Just because someone is mentally ill does not mean that you have to suffer from abuse, or take on their problems as your own. It is important to set your own limits. For example:

“If you continue to talk to me in this manner, I will distance myself.”


“If you would like my assistance I feel you should listen to my suggestions and stop repeating your problem. If you don’t want to help yourself I cannot help you.”

By acting on your words, you are teaching the other that they must try to correct themselves and they are responsible for their own happiness and health.

It is not up to the healthy family member to solve a sick brother or sister or daughter’s problems and to stop living their own life. It is important to guide them to trust themselves. Learning to look after ourselves and not drawn into their problems is a work in process and the more we take care of ourselves we can be of better service to our sick family members.

(Leslie Anne Franklin is not a medical professional and writes from her own personal experience and research)