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A guide for people experiencing mental illness in the family

For the second time in less than a year, a family member is in the hospital following the onset of a mental illness.

The first time, the illness struck someone who until then appeared to be doing well. The manifestation was sudden, extreme and a complete shock to all of us in the family. We experienced a lot of fear and grief as we waited for a diagnosis and a prognosis. It seemed an interminably long time before our loved one regained his health but fortunately he did and has been successfully managing his condition ever since with the help of medication, healthy lifestyle choices and the support of friends, family and the health care system.

This time we’re still worried but the overwhelming feeling is one of relief. This relative had been deteriorating for years but had not been willing to seek help and could not be definitively diagnosed when a psychiatric assessment was conducted.

We had to wait for what’s called an “episode” – a time when the person was clearly in need of medical intervention or be at risk of harm. That waiting is hell, so it’s a strange relief to at least know our loved one is finally getting much-needed care.

I feel strongly that we need to talk openly about mental illness and break down the stigma that still surrounds it. I’m not going to go into further detail about my relatives, though, because I need to respect their privacy

I can, however, share the lessons I’ve learned as a family member of someone living with a mental illness.

Lesson 1 – I am a mental illness ignoramus!

I was embarrassed to realize how little I knew about mental illness when our first relative became ill. Sadly, I’m not alone. Our collective ignorance about this topic is bad news for getting people the help they need, it’s bad news for mentally ill people admitting their condition and sticking with treatment, and it’s bad news for getting sufficient resources for treatment programs and other resources. (See below for resources) There’s lots to learn but probably the most important facts are:
-       a mental health problem is an illness that can be treated
-       mental illness is not the fault of the person experiencing it

Lesson 2 – I am not alone!

I decided one small way I could help break the stigma surrounding mental illness was by talking about our personal experience with it. I was astonished by the number of people who then shared stories of how mental illness had touched them or someone close to them. That surprise was linked to lesson 1. I shouldn’t have been surprised because according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, “mental illnesses indirectly affect all Canadians through illness in a family member, friend or colleague [and] 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness during their lifetime.”

Lesson 3 – Hope is warranted.
It can be overwhelming and downright terrifying when a loved one is in the grips of a mental illness. However, it is remarkable how successfully people can recover – even from severe mental illnesses. Depending on their condition – and there is a wide range of mental illness – some people only need short-term help. Others will require medication and monitoring indefinitely, perhaps for the rest of their lives, but can nonetheless enjoy otherwise normal lives.  Others will not be so fortunate but we are learning more about how to better diagnose and treat mental illnesses every day. Awareness, education and support are key. Which leads me to:

Lesson 4 – Family matters!
Support from friends and families is one of the best ways to help someone who is ill. Families have a key role to play in identifying mental illness, seeking help and supporting treatment and recovery.  When I worked for the B.C. Ministry of Health, a physician colleague told me research showed that strong family support was as important a factor as proper medication in treating mental illness. Knowledge and awareness help us be better advocates. Which leads me to:

Lesson 5 – I am not alone, reprise.
There is a rich array of excellent resources and programs for people who want to learn more about mental illness and/or want to support someone living with a mental illness. These resources include websites, teleconferences, individual counseling, group sessions and books. Below is a list of links and resources I’ve found useful. The first two provide links to the many organizations that provide information, services and support to people living with mental illness or living with someone experiencing mental illness. Let me know your own list.

Helpful Resources for Family Members of People with a Mental Illness

HeretoHelp is a project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information, a group of seven leading mental health and addictions non-profit agencies. This group, which is funded by the provincial government and private sponsors, offers a useful website that includes fact sheets for family members and friends of people with mental illness (in various languages).

The Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre is a provincial resource centre working to link children, youth and their families with appropriate resources in all areas of mental health and addictions. It offers an excellent range of resources for family members, medical professionals and educators. You may also call them at 1-800-665-1822 or email keltycentre@bcmhs.bc.ca.

HealthLinkBC provides information from the B.C. Ministry of Health on a wide range of health topics, including mental health.  British Columbians can also call 8-1-1 around the clock for non-emergency health information.

Being There – When Mental Illness Strikes Someone Near You, by Katherine Farris and Larry MacDonald. As Farris writes in the introduction: “This guide was written with a friend by a former companion who has experienced the bewilderment and sense of aloneness that comes from being suddenly on the spot during a mental health crisis. We wanted to help others keep their footing, understand the challenges they may face, and learn the things they could do to help during this extraordinarily difficult time.” An excellent, compact resource. The guide can be downloaded for free from their website or purchased for $5 from Bolen Books in Victoria or via the Being There website. Everyone should read this so do your karma some good and buy the book.

The Up and Down Life: the Truth About Bipolar Disorder – the Good, the Bad, and the Funny by Paul E. Jones with Andrea Thompson. This book by American comedian Paul E. Jones describes life with bi-polar disorder (formerly called manic depression) before and after accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. It’s practical, pragmatic and sometimes very funny. A good introduction to this condition for people living with it themselves or as a family member.


2 pings

  1. Cindy Player says:

    Thanks for this great post! It is this sort of combination of personal experience, courage, humility and useful resources that will counter stigma effectively.

    1. Stephanie Slater says:

      Thanks Cindy and Debbie for your comments. As you’ll understand, I’ve been a bit preoccupied and haven’t been administering my blog as frequently as usual! I hope that by putting another face on mental illness I can help promote understanding. It’s everywhere, in all kinds of people we know – not just those crazy, violent folks we read about in the media and see in movies! Though I must say, I am so impressed with a variety of recent media stories about mental illness lately. I think that will be the topic of a future post!

  2. debbie says:

    Very interesting article, Stephanie.

    1. Stephanie Slater says:

      I know you’re in the UK – do you find attitudes are different there? Close friends of my husband’s visited us from Ireland a few months ago and they were amazed that we would share the info about our family member. They said people just don’t talk about this stuff in Ireland!

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