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Accepting Your Loved One Has A Mental Illness

Like the phases of grief, parents and family members go from denial to acceptance when a child or loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness.

Introduction

Too often families coping with a brain 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 pamphlet 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 pamphlet. 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.

Denial

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 defences 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 schizophrenia, 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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Blame

Sometimes families look around for a scapegoat for their situation. A common one is the doctor/psychiatrist. Sometimes the victim 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.

Shame

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 about 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.

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

Finding the words is sometimes difficult. 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 world-wide web.

Guilt

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.

Last Updated: 21 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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