Impact of Mental Illness on Families

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When mental illness first strikes, family members may deny the person has a continuing illness. During the acute episode family members will be alarmed by what is happening to their loved one. When the episode is over and the family member returns home, everyone will feel a tremendous sense of relief. All involved want to put this painful time in the past and focus on the future. Many times, particularly when the illness is a new phenomenon in the family, everyone may believe that since the person is now doing very well that symptomatic behavior will never return. They may also look for other answers, hoping that the symptoms were caused by some other physical problem or external stressors that can be removed. For example, some families move thinking that a "fresh start" in a new environment will alleviate the problem. Sometimes, even after some family members do understand the reality of the illness, others do not. Those who do accept the truth find that they must protect the ill person from those who do not and who blame and denigrate the ill person for unacceptable behavior and lack of achievement. Obviously, this leads to tension within the family, and isolation and loss of meaningful relationships with those who are not supportive of the ill person.

Families may also have little knowledge about mental illness. They may believe that it is a condition that is totally disabling. This is not so. However, it is difficult to know where to turn to get information. Without information to help families learn to cope with mental illness, families can become very pessimistic about the future. The illness seems to control their destiny rather than the family, including the ill member, gaining control by learning how to manage the illness and to plan for the future. It is imperative that the family find sources of information that help them to understand how the illness affects the person. They need to know that with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both, the majority of people do return to a normal life style. It is also imperative that the family finds sources of support for themselves. In both cases, clergy can play a critical role in identifying resources in the community that can help the family build the knowledge base that will give them the tools to assist their loved one and themselves.

Understanding Stigma
Even when all members of the family have the knowledge to deal with mental illness, the family is often reluctant to discuss their family member with others because they do not know how people will react. After all, myths and misconception surround mental illness. For many, even their closest friends may not understand. For example, the sister of a young man with schizophrenia pointed out that when a friend's brother had cancer, all his friends were supportive and understanding. But, when she told a few, close friends that her brother has paranoid schizophrenia, they said little and implied that something must be very wrong in her family to cause this illness. Family members may become reluctant to invite anyone to the home because the ill person can be unpredictable or is unable to handle the disruption and heightened stimulation of a number of people in the house. Furthermore, family members may be anxious about leaving the ill person at home alone. They are concerned about what can happen. The result is they go out separately or not at all. The result of the stigma in so many areas of daily life, is that the family becomes more and more withdrawn. When others do not accept the reality of mental illness, families have little choice but to withdraw from previous relationships both to protect themselves and their loved one. They are unwilling to take any more risks of being hurt and rejected. Not surprisingly, all of this can lead to withdrawal from actively participating in the life of the congregation and to a crisis in faith. In this situation a pastor can be tremendously helpful by reaching...
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