Two things that I find to be true when supporting family members with mental illness at any time are these – you cannot pour from an empty cup, and oftentimes just being there is the most important thing. Here is how these truths have manifested themselves in our family’s life during COVID-19.
Mental Illness and Caregivers
Caregiver guilt has been something that has featured heavily for me since my brother, Josh,* was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. For me, this caregiver guilt is a very uncomfortable emotion that I struggle to talk about -- and I want to pick it apart a little bit in this post.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of media coverage about the suicide of television and radio presenter Caroline Flack. I didn’t know Caroline beyond seeing her on TV, but hearing about her death affected me deeply for some reason. I had a panicked sleepless night, and couldn’t shake the feeling of tearfulness that started as soon as I’d been told about the suicide. (Note: This post contains a trigger warning.)
Speaking openly about mental illness helps, but one thing I know for certain is that ''talking about your feelings'' cannot cure a diagnosable mental illness. To purport this idea is reductive and shows a deep-rooted misunderstanding of the complex physiological roots of psychiatric conditions. However, through supporting my brother in his experiences with anxiety and depression, I have come to appreciate that talking openly about emotions does play an extremely important role in a family where mental illness is present.
Learning to recognize caregiver stress at its early stages is important. Supporting my brother through his anxiety and depression has made me keenly aware of the importance of managing my own stress. For me, the first step of this process was learning to recognize the early signs of caregiver stress in my body.
In the healthcare setting where I work, we employ a model of transactional stress. I have found this theory to be extremely helpful in how I support my brother, Josh,* through his depression and anxiety. Here’s a reflection on my experience.
Blaming others for their anxiety might be common, but it shouldn't be. Here's how I learned that lesson.
A diagnosis of mental illness can be shocking for both the patient and their loved ones and, unfortunately, lead to a lack of support. Prior to my husband’s schizophrenia diagnosis, I held a skewed view of mental illness believed the stigma surrounding it. After his diagnosis, I repeatedly asked myself why it couldn’t be something more seemingly straightforward, such as anxiety or depression. I learned to accept his illness over time, but it is difficult when others are not able to do the same. The lack of support we've been shown in our struggle hurts.
Mental health advocacy for a loved one fights the stigma that exists in the most unlikely places. The past few weeks were quite overwhelming. Following a stay in a psychiatric ward, my husband was released. We dealt with multiple issues during that stay, including poor psychiatric care and a bizarre meeting with a highly unethical psychiatrist to discuss said care. In short, be aware that psychiatric hospitalization, while very important, also may lend itself to abuse of power. Involve yourself in your loved one's care because mental health advocacy for your loved one is crucial.
This post was particularly difficult for me to write because mental health hospitalization is not easy to talk about thanks to mental health hospitalization stigma. This stigma is profound, and both the stigma and the hospitalization itself places great strain on both the individual requiring treatment and their loved ones. I struggled with what to write, who to write it for, and if I should even post at all. If you know me or have read my page, you will know that I write for HealthyPlace because my husband has a mental illness. He has a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He also writes for HealthyPlace as a coauthor of "Creative Schizophrenia." Since his last hospitalization, we moved halfway across the country, had our third child, bought a house to renovate, found good jobs, and learned to work through his minor relapses. A couple of days ago, his condition deteriorated. He suffered a significant relapse and displayed signs of dealing with a significant psychotic episode. Even though I blog about coping with a family member's mental illness, I dreaded what came next and the response from those around us. As I drove him to the hospital, I felt the sting of stigma over his mental health hospitalization.