When Mental Illness Hits the Family: Things to Remember

February 27, 2013 Randye Kaye

After mental illness strikes a family, can a family get happiness back? Can they bond again? These are worrisome concerns because, after all, having a loved one with a serious mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder can put a lot of stress on family members and change family dynamics.

My Mental Illness in the Family Experience

I woke up to a miracle this morning: Ben and his friend, Josh (who is staying with us for awhile), had actually emptied the dishwasher. Without being told.


[caption id="attachment_1332" align="alignleft" width="170" caption="Can a family get happiness back?"]After mental illness strikes, can a family bond again and get happiness back? [/caption]

If you've ever parented a teenager (even one as old as 30), you know what I mean. This act represented responsibility, courtesy and looking out for the needs of the group (family, in this case).

All of these qualities are things I'd once thought were lost to us forever. They often get hidden behind mental illness symptoms and become the qualities that the illness takes away. (aka negative symptoms of Schizophrenia).

Oh, it has been a long road - and, sometimes, still is. But any sign of progress, of normalcy, is a small miracle and fuels my hope.

After Mental Illness Hits, Will We Ever Have Fun Again?

There was a time, believe me, when I doubted I would ever even like my son again, though of course I loved him. (though I certainly hated his illness, and still do).

One of the things I missed most was: Fun.

I missed hearing his laughter, simple conversation, just simply enjoying an activity as a family. The effects of Schizophrenia are hard on the person and the person's family. Schizophrenia steals - and we had to be content with so much less - like just being grateful that Ben was taking his medications. But where was the son whose company I had so enjoyed BTI (Before The Illness)?
drum circle
I remember the first time we actually had some fun again. It was a Drum Circle, the first activity we'd done in ages other than going to the psychiatrist. It takes up a whole chapter in my book, Ben Behind His Voices, because the moment was so important.

The drums take over, the rhythms themselves overcoming our self-consciousness. Ben is good at this; it shows in the way he holds himself. His gaze is direct, his hands and brain move quickly. He teases me when he can imitate a rhythm more quickly than I can. I’m actually comfortable enough to compete with him. For once, I don’t have to tread lightly around my son. He makes fun of me with a gently teasing smile, and then he helps me get the beats right.

Then it’s time for a break; Ben retreats back into himself, just enough for me to see what an effort it was for him to concentrate so hard. He goes outside for a cigarette and some solitude, then comes back inside, renewed. He shares in the milk, cookies, and conversation.

Tonight, Ben is not fragile. Tonight, he is the way I always imagined a son of 22 to be: proud of himself. Grown past needing Mom to take care of him. Taking care of Mom, just a little bit.

It was a start.

Mental Illness and the Family Dynamic

Things to Keep in Mind

  • Patience, patience, patience. The dynamic comes back in tiny, careful steps - and sometimes with long stagnant periods.
  • Take care of yourself. Sometimes it's all you can do.
  • Without treatment (which usually means medication too), getting to a "new normal" will be much harder, to say the least. (Ben takes his meds currently, not because he thinks he needs them, but because it seems easier to get along with us)
  • Find whatever positives you can.Your ill relative is still part of the family, however that is redefined - and needs to feel that
  • Include him in all family celebrations if possible
  • Find Ways to have fun together - a movie, a meal, a game of catch...
  • Let her (or, ask her) help with chores and other family tasks. Appreciate.
  • Remember that he may not be able to express love the same way as he used to, but that he can still love. Keep expectations at a realistic level.
  • Keep your sense of humor as much as you can
  • Be alert for relapse signs, and act as quickly as possible
  • When things are stable, take the time to appreciate those moments
  • Do normal activities, but set and keep limits as to acceptable behavior and be prepared to enforce them
  • Remember that your relative may be stressed by excess noise and chaos
  • Family love matters. It matters a lot

Hang in there. Keep reading, learning and reaching out for support. I applaud you.

APA Reference
Kaye, R. (2013, February 27). When Mental Illness Hits the Family: Things to Remember, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Randye Kaye

June, 1 2013 at 6:51 pm

my whole family including me has some form of mental illness being the mom is so hard!!! I feel like I started this and now it has a life of it's own
We never have fun or dreams or even each other to lean on because we are all lost souls most of the time?

April, 11 2013 at 6:16 pm

I just found this blog and appreciate the good information and advice. It is encouraging to think that we families of the mentally ill can have fun again. Our only child has a severe form of social anxiety disorder, which has impacted her entire life since toddlerhood through school years and her attempts to go to college or work. She has been unemployed for years now and moved back into our home about three years ago. She will only see a "life coach" she found online, but has attended family therapy sessions with us, as she believes her problems were caused by our parenting during her high school years and not by her disorder, so family therapy puts the onus on us and not her. She resists treatment for herself and her disorder, and we have been told there is absolutely nothing we can do, other than be supportive. She is vehemently anti-drugs. She has symptoms of OCD also, and was described by one therapist as having some Asperger's characteristics, and her spaces in our home, while spacious, are beginning to look awful as she has hoarding tendencies. All around, it has been extremely challenging, and our hearts ache for her, and the losses in general for our whole family. So - the only fun we have had lately is attending baseball games, which we all enjoy enthusiastically. Thank god for baseball! We have so much fun at those games!!!!

Kathy Beardsworth
March, 2 2013 at 7:24 am

* "the family"

Kathy Beardsworth
March, 2 2013 at 7:22 am

wow!!.......i so enjoyed your article and all the comments and answers you 35 year old daughter lives with schizoaffective disorder....and after 15 years or so of trying to figure this new life out, i too have come to many of the same conclusions that you have....she has or i should say, this illness has caused many of our family members to back off and stay distant from her, but she so needs that unconditional love....but for the most part, it only comes from me.....that family doesn't know how to set boundries with love.....when the illness takes over, they back off so far away that it takes awhile for us to all be able to get together hurts....but i hurt for her mostly....all that this illness has stolen from her....there will never be a "normal" in this world.....only precious moments....and like you, i take them when i can get them and am grateful that they come at all these days...anyway, just wanted to thank you for your well written comments...oh and i am going out today to get your book... <3

Anne Marie
March, 1 2013 at 9:28 am

Veyr good article Randye, thank you. What really hit me hard, though, was reading your statement, "But any sign of progress, of normalcy, is a small miracle and fuels my hope." I actually am terrified of letting myself feel hopeful again.
I've been through the NAMI family to family course. I've lived with my daughter's illness for several years and done everything I can to help her and the rest of the family mend. I see small changes, a little progress, then I too-quickly see signs of potential decline. Or what I feel might be decline but in fact might not be.
When will I be able to let go of that state of constant alertness, ever-ready for the next trial? Instead of hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, I'm expecting the worst and afraid to feel encouraged or excited for even the smallest signs of the best.
To borrow a phrase often used by my kids, this new reality sucks.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Randye Kaye
March, 1 2013 at 10:28 am

yes, it does!
wish I had answers to smooth the path are doing all you can, it sounds like, and on days when I am on high alert (like, um, all days?) I remind myself of two things:
1 - "It is what it is. If today is a good one, stay grateful and enjoy it."
2 - what's around the corner? whos knows? but, "Whatever happens, we will handle it somehow."

February, 28 2013 at 1:41 pm

Very helpful, at last it seems. But what if, like in my case, I have Bipolar Disorder..What if "you've" got NO family, OR friends..NO ONE AT ALL... that loves or will support me ? They ALL gave up on me.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Randye Kaye
February, 28 2013 at 3:49 pm

Hi Katrina - I'm so sorry. Sometimes the helpful information comes too late, which is why I wrote my book and why the folks at are doing their best as well.
Many with diagnosed mental illness tell me they had to find a "new" family - and new friends - by joining Clubhouses, NAMI Peer-to-Peer groups, and by volunteering to befriend others. Mental illness or no, many find they recreate their families with new people...I hope that one of these ideas may work for you. Here are the links:…
also check out the blogs here like "Breaking Bipolar" - you will find kindred spirits. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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