Coming to Terms with a Family Member's Mental Illness



 Learn about the process of acceptance and the emotional difficulties of caring for a loved one with a psychological disorder. Meta KeywordsAccepting your family member has a mental illness can be difficult. Learn about the process of acceptance and the emotional difficulties of caring for a loved one with a psychological disorder.

For Family Members Caring for Relatives with a Mental Disorder


(ed. note: this article mentions schizophrenia caregivers, but it applies to caregivers of anyone with a mental illness.)

Too often, families coping with a psychiatric disorder in a close relative neglect their own health. They are so emotionally involved that they fail to realize that they are under tremendous strain. This article is based on ideas from families around the world.

When anyone gets sick with any serious disorder they go through the various stages outlined in this article. Disbelief and denial are the first to appear, followed shortly after by blame and anger. When someone becomes ill with a brain disorder like schizophrenia, feelings and emotions are not very much different. What may be different is the long time people take to recognize mental illness and the need to seek treatment.

We hope that the pointers presented here will help families understand that feelings of loss, blame and sorrow are quite normal and that there are ways of overcoming them in time.


Most people, when faced with the diagnosis of schizophrenia in a loved one, go through a phase of denial. This makes it very difficult for other members of the family to cope. Any efforts they make on the "patient's" behalf may be stymied when another family member won't accept the diagnosis. Removing the defenses of a family member who is protecting himself by denying that a real disorder is at work is difficult and distressing. Arguments may occur to disrupt the household even further.

There is no particular solution to this problem except to provide information about the mental illness, so that the person can see that many of the events happening in his family could be related to the disorder. Time may be the ingredient necessary for acceptance even when knowledge and support are available.

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Sometimes families look around for a scapegoat for their situation. A common one is the doctor/psychiatrist. Sometimes the victim (patient) himself comes in for some blame. The sooner everyone realizes that the real enemy is the brain disorder itself, the sooner they can begin to cooperate with each other and work towards the person's recovery.


To come to terms with feelings of shame, it is necessary to assess how you felt about mental illness before it happened to you. If your attitude was of compassion before, then you may have no problem with shame. If you viewed mental illness with fear, extreme embarrassment or even horror, your feelings of shame will be difficult to overcome. Remember that 30 years ago people were ashamed if a relative developed cancer. It was spoken of in whispers because it frightened and horrified people. Today, no one would dream of being ashamed over cancer. Through education, understanding and better medical knowledge, society has come to terms with a devastating disease. In time, this will be true about schizophrenia and other psychological disorders.

You may feel that you cannot tell anyone about the mental illness in your family, but making up false excuses, or white lies, for your relative's behavior will only compound the problem. Confide in close friends who will lend positive support.

Finding the words is sometimes difficult. For instance, calling schizophrenia "a mental breakdown" or a "thought disorder" is an introduction to further explanation; if you cannot bring yourself to say the word. Explain some of the symptoms. Your friends will want to know, as you did, what schizophrenia means. You may want to join a self-help group where your problems will be treated in confidence, where you can speak freely about your experiences and fears.

In many countries, schizophrenia family organizations provide a help line where you can talk about your situation. You should also request information from this source. There are also chat sites on the internet.


Whenever anyone gets any illness, members of the family wonder how the illness developed. The difference with mental illness is that society has, for a long time, erroneously believed that it had to do with family life or events in one's past. Thus people spend endless hours wondering if, in some mysterious way, they could be responsible for the illness. It is doubtful whether families can avoid this soul-searching but it is important that this initial reaction be overcome.

By listening to informed speakers through a self help group (WFSAD can provide literature and put you in touch with a local group), by watching documentary films and listening to radio programs about schizophrenia and by speaking to other families experiencing similar problems, you will realize that you are not to blame. More and more research indicates that schizophrenia is a biological brain disease with an as yet unknown cause.

Guilt over being well while one's loved one is ill is a common occurrence, particularly among siblings. It is difficult to enjoy your successes-a first job, attending college, relationships with friends, while your brother or sister has none of these. It is paradoxical that dwelling on these things may reduce your own self-worth. Parents may not appear to value your achievements because they do not want to upset the person who is ill. Support from close friends should enable you to rebuild your sense of self-esteem and your ability to be proud of your own achievements. Parents should not neglect their children who are well.

continue:Knowledge, A Sense of Humor, and Ability to Make Adjustments Key

Last Updated: 29 December 2015
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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