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Mental Illness in the Family

( The following is excerpted from a longer article)

The Role of Family Members

Family members are central to helping and healing those with mental illness. Some of the ways in which they can help include the following:

Get treatment promptly

It does no good, and may do a lot of harm, to delay getting appropriate treatment from a skilled mental health professional for a family member who, there is good reason to believe, is mentally ill. Psychotherapy given early in the course of a mental disease, before it becomes deep-seated and less easily treated, will yield quicker and better results. Medication administered by a skilled physician may reverse psychotic or other bizarre behavior, assist the brain to heal, and improve the effectiveness of psychotherapy. Failure to provide needed treatment only increases the possibility that mentally ill persons may harm themselves or others. Those who need advice on where to go for treatment should discuss the matter with a trusted advisor . other family members, the family doctor, or a knowledgeable friend.

Show forth additional love and compassion

If family members ridicule, demean, criticize, or abandon the victim involved; if they go on and on about supposed (and usually false) sin and blame; if they are judgmental and censorious, I guarantee the patient will not do well. But if they love and enfold, if they refuse to judge, if they are kind, compassionate and empathetic, then therapy exerts its full beneficial effects.

Provided patients are not a threat to themselves or others, and do not require intensive nursing care, a loving home may be the best place for healing to occur. There the patient feels safe, secure and in the presence of those who really care in ways that professional detachment forbids. Psychiatric wards in hospitals remain necessary, but in my admittedly limited experience they are often frightening and foreboding places, which do little to calm and reassure many patients. They may provide little of the intensive treatment needed by seriously ill patients.

A word of caution is necessary. Home may not be the best place for mentally ill patients if there are small children there, who require constant care or may be frightened and influenced by a mentally ill family member. Further, the turmoil and hubbub in many busy homes may be excessively disturbing to some mentally ill persons.

Family members soon learn that developing and unfailingly demonstrating patience is a large part of love and compassion. Patience must be developed if one is to deal effectively with the seemingly endless ebb and flow of illness, the apparently never-ending routine of one step forward and another backward, the constant vigilance required of those who are caregivers for patients who may be in danger of suicide. Patience is needed to guard against the tendency to get out of sorts with the person who is sick, and whose sickness causes eddies of pain in the lives of others. Remember that no one with mental illness wants to be that way. People are not mentally ill because they lack willpower. They cannot, through any exercise of will, get out of the predicament they are in. To lose patience with them, to advise them to “just snap out of it” and “get a little backbone” is not only insensitive, but futile.

Anyone who has ever witnessed the almost unbearable pain and uncontrollable weeping of a severe panic attack, or the indescribable sadness of a severely depressed person who cries all day and retreats into hopeless apathy, would never think for a moment that mental illness is just a matter of willpower.

At the same time that we must learn to be patient with ourselves and with the victim of mental illness, we also must learn to be patient with God. When prayers are not answered as we had hoped so fervently, when our timetable is not that of the Almighty, when we are called upon to treat the winepress of affliction alone, it becomes seductively easy to grow angry with God, to feel He has abandoned us. Pain and patience are uneasy partners at best. But it is in learning to endure whatever mortality brings us – including the vicarious suffering we experience at the pain of loved ones – that we find the key which opens the door to celestial halls.

Family members must then learn to put their trust in God. No matter if our path be strewn with thorns, no matter how onerous our struggle through mists of darkness and torrents of tears, God will succor and sustain us. Learning that lesson is at best a stern struggle. It involves tutorial suffering and stretching. But it is the only path to peace, amidst the pain and suffering, the loneliness, depression and despair of mental illness.

Those who suffer from mental illness, who are burdened with pain, depression, and confusion, must, I believe, be especially on guard against the devil and his agents. So too must the circle of loving family members and other caregivers.

Learn all you can about mental illness and how to deal with it

Family members of mentally ill persons will love better as they learn more about the causes of mental illness and the suffering it brings. Their compassion for the victim will increase, and they will be less judgmental and censorious. They will grow more patient and forbearing. They will begin to see mental illness for what it is – a disease of the brain, not of the spirit, a malady caused not by sin, but by problems in the working of the most complex structure of the body. They will grow thankful for medical and other therapeutic interventions which have revolutionized treatment of mental illness in the last four decades, and will look forward with hope to the rapidly approaching day when treatment will be more specific and more effective than ever.

As family members struggle to learn and understand mental illness, they will find that their insight will grow exponentially if they simultaneously succor the life of the spirit. As they do so, scriptures will become more meaningful, prayer sweeter, contemplation more attuned to the Divine. As they draw closer to God and put their lives, and that of their loved one, in His hands, they will find that they are never alone. They will come to realize, as perhaps never before, the price which Christ paid that He may know more perfectly how to personally sustain us through the seasons of our trials.

Encourage the person who is ill

Persons with mental illness, who often are worn down and disheartened by pervasive feelings of hopelessness, need encouragement and hope for the future. This must be realistic: “Pie in the sky” advice will lead only to discouragement, a sense of betrayal, and increased cynicism. But there are sold grounds for optimism in nearly every instance. The victim can with total assurance be reminded often of God’s love, of the unfailing love of family members, and of the reality of eternal family relationships. There is hope, too, that the therapeutic future will be brighter for sufferers of mental illness of all types.

Mentally ill persons should be encouraged to continue to pray . and fulfill other religious obligations as they can. They will never benefit more from God’s presence in their lives than now. They should be encouraged to do the ordinary little things that provide meaning to life – to appreciate the beauties of nature, complete appropriate tasks, and exercise. Such encouragement may help the afflicted person decide to cooperate more fully with treatment, gain self-esteem, even to work harder in therapy and be more diligent in taking prescribed medication.

Maintain a life of your own

If family members are to be of the most help to a loved one afflicted with mental illness, they must maintain a life of their own. They owe that to themselves, to the sufferer, to those in their family who are not sick, to friends and business associates, even to God. And so, somehow, in the midst of the turmoil and stress, constant worry, time and financial pressures, and all else that bears down upon them, they must find time, even if only for a few minutes daily, to recharge their own reservoirs of strength. They may be rejuvenated by reading a rood book, practicing a hobby or listening to uplifting music. Quiet discussions with trusted friends, a telephone call to a family member, or an hour of service of service to others in a setting away from the patient may be helpful.

© 2006 Marriage and Families, used by permission.

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