Information for this post comes from NAMI.com, “When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness” by Rebecca Woolis, MFCC, and my own experience.
When you have a family member, particularly a child, with a mental illness, it is easy to let your concern for them consume your life. This backfires, damaging you and the rest of your family. These eight steps can help you balance your family’s needs.
1. Take care of yourself.
If you don’t care for yourself, the whole family may suffer even more. You may have to adjust your priorities or your lifestyle, but you should avoid letting the challenges posed by your loved one’s mental health condition make you neglect other important parts of your life.
In some cases, the stress of dealing with a family member can create your own mental health challenges. If you begin to feel that you are struggling with sadness or anxiety, do not hesitate to seek treatment for yourself. Caring for your own mental well-being will serve as a model for your loved one to follow, and ensure that you are healthy and able to care for your family member.
2. Be intentional about time with other family members.
Remember that if you have other children, they may resent being pushed to the side if all the attention is placed on their sibling’s mental health challenges. Make sure that they understand what their sibling is going through, and that you spend time with each of them. Keeping a happy and balanced family can be very helpful in reducing stress levels for everyone, which can help alleviate symptoms of mental illness.
3. Get your family involved.
Don’t try to “spare” family members from stress by taking on all the caretaking yourself. Work together to give everyone in the household roles to play according to their abilities. Include your family member with the illness as well, making his or her responsibilities to the family clear.
Other family members may deal with the challenges and obstacles differently that you would like. So be ready to compromise, listen and be open to new ideas.
It is possible you may discover that some members of your family have little interest in supporting you and your child in dealing with challenges posed by your child’s mental health condition. It is also possible that a spouse or significant other may be a negative influence on your child. They may demand discipline for behaviors your child cannot control, deny that there is anything wrong or insist upon an irrational course of action.
Helping to raise a child who has a mental health condition can be stressful, and it is unrealistic to assume that anyone, yourself included, will always react in an ideal way. However, you must also realize that it is your responsibility to protect your child, even from others that you care about.
4. Resume “normal” activities and routines.
Don’t let life revolve around your family member’s mental health condition. Return to a regular routine within the family. Spend time together on activities unconnected to illness, such as watching a movie, eating dinner out or visiting a favorite park. Practice living life with a mental health condition, rather than struggling against mental illness.
5. Answer these questions to decide how to spend your time.
Consider these questions to find the balance that’s best for you and your family.
- How much time can you spend with your ill family member without resenting him or her? (for example: two hours a day, one visit a week, one phone call a week, etc.)
- How much time do you need to spend with your ill family member to keep the relationship as good as possible in the long run?
- How much time do other family members want and need?
- How much time do you need with the Lord to feel His presence?
- How much nurturing do you need, either as time alone or time with well friends and family?
- How enjoyable and valuable is the time that you and your ill family member spend together? How do each of you feel after spending time together?
- Are other family members showing signs of stress, such as physical symptoms, disturbed sleep and eating habits, or depression and anxiety?
Base your time spent with your loved one, either at home or in a visit, on the answers to these questions.
6. Decide about living at home.
Mentally ill people tend to function as their highest levels and their families do the best when the mentally ill person lives somewhere other than the family home. However, it is very hard to find permanent supportive housing and other housing for the mentally ill. It can take years.
Living at home tends to work best if the loved one:
- Functions at a relatively high level, without many obvious symptoms.
- Is female.
- Has friends and does activities outside the home.
- Does not have any siblings living at home.
- Participates in treatment and some type of structured activity outside the home.
- Has a family that has developed skills to be calm, positive, respectful and nonjudgmental of the ill person.
Having the loved one live at home is not advised when:
- The symptoms are so disruptive that the family cannot live a normal life.
- Siblings living at home feel adversely impacted by the ill person.
- Family members are angry at, frightened off or critical of the ill person.
- The parents’ marriage is negatively impacted in a strong way.
- The ill person begins to control family members who are then unable to have their normal routines and activities.
- The ill relative has no outside friends or activities.
- The family is a single parent alone.
I believe permanent supportive housing is the best choice for people with mental illnesses. You can check with your local Housing Authority or community shelter system to find out if permanent supportive housing is available in your areas.
Permanent Supportive Housing is based on a Housing First philosophy, an approach that assumes that people are much more likely to become stable, contributing members of society when they have a safe, affordable place to live.
The Housing First approach works by providing safe, affordable housing coupled with supportive services (internal programs and external community resources) tailored to meet each individual’s needs. Residents are strongly encouraged to participate. Activities include:
- Collaborative team meetings
- Assessment and referral
- Case management
- Life skills training (nutrition, stress management)
- Education enrichment (GED)
- Health care education
- Crisis intervention
- Recovery support
- Benefits and financial management assistance
- Workforce readiness training: volunteer, workforce readiness, supported employment, employment services
- Joint property management and services apartment inspections
- Housing retention/eviction prevention planning
If your loved one lives at home, remember: Everyone at home has rights. Try to keep that balanced with any special considerations for the loved one.
At the same time, be realistic in your expectations about the loved one’s behavior. Have a short list of clear house rules: No smoking in bed. No loud television or music after 11 p.m. No violence. Use appropriate consequences when rules are broken.
Keep things as predictable as possible. You and your loved one need to get out of the house at different times and have separate activities.
7. Have successful visits.
If your loved one lives elsewhere, you can have regular visits. A shorter visit can be better than one that’s too long. Be sure to communicate love and compassion.
Stay no longer than an hour if your loved one is in a hospital or locked facility. Do not “overprogram” your visit, so you can have some quiet time with your loved one.
Tie visits to your house to behavior. If your loved one is at your house for a day or longer, continue your normal routine.
8. Make activities together enjoyable.
Please keep in mind that sometimes you can’t make the activities enjoyable, particularly if your loved one is severely depressed or psychotic. If this is the case, the best thing to do is to make sure your loved one knows that you love them and encourage them to continue treatment.
Many times you can have activities with loved ones. People with mental illness are uncomfortable with unstructured time when there are no activities and people are making small talk. It’s better to find a common interest to base an activity on: sports, movies, a game, walking together in a park, or visiting a place that interests you both.
Begin slowly and build, if you haven’t been doing this. I try to schedule an outing once every three weeks. This is in addition to two visits to the house per week.
The six rules for these activities are:
- Be realistic about what your loved one can and cannot do.
- Have a specific, prearranged plan for the activity.
- Avoid surprises.
- Have a contingency plan for what you will do if things go badly.
- Give your loved one a specific task to focus on.
- Accept the fact that your loved one may not be well enough that day to do the activity.
What does “be realistic” mean?
- Know what your loved one can tolerate in terms of travel time, number of people involved, amount of loud noise and stimulation, etc.
- Know what you can tolerate in terms of what embarrasses you, how much time you can spend together, etc.
- Be willing to cancel if your loved one is not doing well.
- Go where people would be more accepting of your loved one’s behavior (a family-style restaurant vs. a more formal restaurant, the zoo rather than an art museum if your loved one is loud)
- Don’t expect perfect behavior.
When you are having a get-together in your house with family and/or close friends:
- Again, be realistic.
- Assign your loved one a specific task to do, if possible.
- Tell others in advance what your loved one’s needs are, if you feel comfortable.
- Allow your loved one to leave or take breaks as needed.
Do you have any other advice for balancing family needs? I’d love to hear it!