mother comforting child

Impact of Mental Illness on Children

The following information is from NAMI Baltimore, NAMI Vermont, “Stop Walking on Eggshells” by Paul T. Mason MS and Randi Kreger, “When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness” by Rebecca Woolis, MFT, “The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia” by Kim T. Mueser and Susan Gingerich, and my own experience.

Let’s start with the bad news. When your family is dealing with a mental illness, the situation impacts young family members the most. This is true whether the children are the offspring or the siblings of the ill person. They are the most vulnerable because they have more limited coping skills and are more dependent on others.

NAMI’s research with adult siblings and adult children found that the younger the family member, the greater the potential impact. If the mental illness delays or disrupts early developmental milestones, the complications can go on for a lifetime.

“When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness” says the worst times for children are at the onset of the illness, during the child’s adolescence and during bad episodes.

The Worst Case Scenario

Young children may become enveloped in their relative’s psychotic system with lifelong consequences. They may feel that their own needs are not important.  They may grow up too quickly. They may assume a parental role in the family.

Siblings and offspring may have “survivor’s syndrome,” feeling guilty that they were spared the illness. They also may have negative impacts on their academic and social relationships, being reluctant to bring people to the home.

As adults, these children may develop:

  • Problems with self-esteem that leaves them more dependent on the approval of others.
  • Perfectionism and the strong need for control to compensate for their chaotic upbringing.
  • Worry about their own mental health and the mental health of their children.
  • A feeling of social alienation and isolation.
  • Inappropriate caregiving in close relationships (co-dependency).
  • Reluctance to make long-term commitments.
  • May enter an early marriage to get away from the home environment.
  • Posttraumatic symptoms including heightened fear and anxiety, intrusive flashbacks, emotional numbing, etc.

When they become adults, the children may have these feelings:

  • Concern about caregiving for the relative (94%)
  • Difficulty balancing family and personal needs (81%)
  • Feeling their own needs were not met (79%)
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness (75%)
  • Guilt feelings (74%)
  • Psychic numbing (70%)
  • Problems trusting (69%)
  • Problems with intimacy (69%)
  • A sense of growing up too fast (67%)
  • Depression (66%)

The Good News

Ultimately, most children in this situation grow into resilient adults. They usually do have intense feelings of anguish and loss. But they are survivors.

These children need three things to become survivors:

  1. Information about mental illness and its meaning to the family. (Naming and taming)
  2. Skills to cope with mental illness and its impact on their lives.
  3. Support, including recognition that their needs and desires matter.

You can help them when you:

  • Strengthen and support the family system as a unit.
  • Reach out to the children to listen to them. Encourage them to ask questions and share their feelings. Tell them they are not to blame.
  • Encourage their parents to get the child into therapy. Play therapy may help very young children. Older children may benefit from individual or group therapy.
  • Reassure them that their needs matter and that you will support them in achieving their goals.

Helping Offspring of People With Mental Illness

Most children of people with mental illness will not develop the illness themselves. But they do not come through the situation unscathed. Studies indicate that having a well parent in the mix or a sustaining sibling relationship reduces the stress.

Many offspring are late bloomers because their development was placed on hold. Many talk about how weird it feels to “outgrow” a parent … to have their own maturity advance beyond the parent’s maturity.

As a parent, grandparent or other relative, you should increase your time and build a strong relationship with the child. What you say doesn’t matter as much as what you do. The child will learn about detachment, self-care, limit setting etc. from you. You can learn coping skills together as a family.

To get there, try to make an alliance with the ill parent. Tell them often that you know that they love their child and want to be a good parent.

At the same time, take steps to ensure the safety of the child at all times. When the illness is severe, it’s often best to not allow the ill parent to take care of the child.

Tell the child what illness the parent has, its symptoms and prognosis in an age-appropriate way. It is frightening to not know what is happening.

Listen to the child without judgment. Assure the child that all his feelings are valid and okay. Give the child frequent opportunities to discuss fears, questions and concerns.

Make reading material available, but don’t push. Just leave the material out for an older child to read when ready.

Create opportunities for the family to be “normal,” such as outings, holidays or vacations. Let the child know that it’s OK to have fun. Of course, make sure the family is represented at the child’s important occasions (recitals, graduations, etc.) Offer physical affection regularly, and foster a sense of humor.

Try to make sure that the child has an appropriate level of responsibility. Don’t allow them to become the parent in the home.

Help the child understand that they are in no way responsible for the illness, its symptoms, its severity. They can’t fix it by being extra good.

When the parent is hospitalized, give the child the option to visit them in the hospital. If they want to, prepare them about what to expect and talk about it afterwards. You also can give an older child the opportunity to privately talk to their parent’s doctor to ask questions.

Helping Siblings of People With Mental Illness

Sibling loss is normally intense. It resurfaces at every developmental milestone. Many say they feel invisible in the family once a sibling gets mental illness. They see the stress on their parents, and they don’t want to add to it.

Siblings also commonly have anxiety about developing the illness. Surveys conducted with siblings in young adulthood also find they have two questions on their minds: “What is going to happen to my sibling?” and “What will be expected of me when my parents are not able to care for my sibling anymore?”

Some ways to support siblings include:

  • Encourage them to go to therapy, which they are be open about their feelings.
  • Support them when they feel they must step out of the family problem.
  • Empathize when they are torn between helping their parents and their ill sibling and moving their own lives along.
  • Listen to them when they talk about survivor’s guilt. (It’s at its worst in the 20s.)
  • Be open about the future when parents are not able to care for the sibling. Involve the sibling in creating options for future care.

Mental illness impacts the whole family, but you can mitigate the problems if you are intentional about dealing with them.

broken wedding ring

When Your Spouse Has a Mental Illness

Mental illness is very hard on marriage. I know. I’ve been there. My first husband had a diagnosis of atypical psychosis, and our final years of marriage were filled with escalating abuse.

The stress can and does reach crisis levels. This includes the practical burdens of day-to-day problems as well as the emotional consequences of the illness. Some couples fall into pattern where managing the illness is the central part of the relationship. You become primarily patient and caregiver, not husband and wife.

The core of the emotional burden is an ongoing grieving process: mourning for the individual who has the illness and for the family life … present and future … that has changed.

Despite this, some do maintain healthy relationships.

Impact on a Marriage

Note: The following information came from verywellmind.com and “Stop Walking on Eggshells” by Paul T. Mason, MS, and Randi Kreger. The research study referenced is “Love and Mental Illness: A Survey of Psychological Well-Being and Intimate Partnerships,” published in PsychGuides.com (from American Addiction Centers) in January 2019. I also include my own thoughts from my experience.

It starts with finding out what is happening. The 2019 study by PsychGuides.com found that men tend to wait longer to disclose their mental illness diagnosis than women do. It found that 73.5% of woman tell their partners about the diagnosis, while only 52% of men do.

A new diagnosis of mental illness can be devastating, embarrassing and even frightening. Due to the problems of stigma, sufferers worry that you may not love or desire them anymore. They fear divorce. And, in situations of violence, separation and divorce may be the best answer. (This happened to me in my first marriage, and the church agreed it was best under the circumstances.) This is a decision that takes much prayer, and we’ll go over some questions to ponder below.

In meantime, understand that a negative reaction from you can potentially exacerbate symptoms of the mental illness and bring on additional feelings of hopelessness. So, if you can, let your spouse know that you are there for and love them “in sickness and in health.”

Steps to Take When Your Spouse Is Diagnosed

Educate yourself.

  • Seek out high-quality psychological and medical professionals. Find literature and online information about the particular diagnosis from legitimate sources only. Websites that you rely on should have good reputations or come recommended by your psychotherapist or physician.
  • Understand that issues that you think of as “character flaws” might be symptoms.
  • Effective treatment combining therapy and medication is crucial. Mental health professionals can also educate you about what role you can and should play in your spouse’s treatment plan.

Do not become their therapist or enabler.

  • Let the professionals outside your marriage do their jobs with your spouse. Your role is to provide love, support, and sympathy for your partner during their recovery efforts.
  • You don’t want to do things for your spouse that they can do for themselves. How involved you should be depends on how ill your spouse is.

Seek individual and couples counseling.

  • Spouses of people with a mental health condition can feel hate, frustration and anger. Emotional exhaustion is not unusual. Individual counseling can help you.
    • It’s normal to be angry if your spouse is not trying to manage their illness. You may feel yourself acting as a parent/caregiver in the situation. This can damage you and your relationship.
    • Your own therapist can help you talk through decisions about boundaries issues. Your spouse’s ability to take care of themselves will change along the continuum of care. Your therapist can help you to be strong, yet flexible.
    • If your spouse continues to refuse treatment, you can work with your own therapist to decide key issues, such as:
      • Should I use our marriage and the children as leverage to get my spouse to get help?  (As in:  You get treatment or we’re leaving you.)
      • Is this situation dangerous? Should I leave with the children?
    • Mental illness also changes the relationship with your in-laws. A counselor can help you with this.
  • Couples counseling can prevent the two of you from falling further into an unhealthy relationship. (For example, it’s easy to blame everything that’s wrong in the relationship on the mental illness.)
    • Couples counseling can help with sexual intimacy issues as well, which are common when a spouse has a mental illness.
    • Financial stresses are common when one spouse has a mental illness. Couples counseling is a good place to discuss the situation.
    • This setting is also a good place to discuss specifics about child care.  Should you leave your children with your spouse while you work?
  • Stay active in a support group.
    • You get to hear lived experience from others who have been in your situation.
    • You can talk through issues.
    • You can also help others as they help you.

Practice self-care regularly.

  • Self-care is necessary if you have a spouse with mental health problems. If you don’t focus on your own health, you may be sucked into the vortex of the mental illness, putting your marriage at risk.
  • Go back to the basics: Get enough sleep. Do some regular physical activity. Eat well. Spend time with friends or loved ones. Engage in activities or hobbies that you enjoy.
  • Watch out for compassion fatigue and burn-out. This is a common scenario when dealing with an ill or disabled partner.
  • Ask yourself if you are responding well to this new scenario, and to other challenges in your life. Are you stepping up in a way you that you are proud of or are you avoiding doing your part to help your spouse, your family, your marriage, and yourself?

Deciding to Stay or Go

This is a tough decision. Sometimes your family, especially your parents, may see things more clearly than you do. I remember when my husband’s therapist told me “I think you need help to become strong enough to leave this marriage.” It was a shock to me, but not to my father.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Am I in physical danger?  Are the children in danger?
  • Have I accepted the fact that my spouse is the one who decides about treatment?
  • How would a separation impact the children?
  • How does this marriage affect me?
  • If a friend were in my place, what would I say to them?

Having a spouse with a mental illness can be a heavy cross to carry. But, remember, with treatment 60% to 80% of people with mental illness improve their behaviors. You can have hope, but may have to be practical in the moment.

content woman

How to Feel Content … No Matter What

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well feed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Philippines 4: 11-13

Is it possible to have contentment … a peace separate from our circumstances … when we are loving someone who is mentally ill?  Especially when it is a spouse and your whole life is upside down?  When it is a child and their prospects are damaged and our daily lives are so changed? Or it is a parent and you have to parent them?

Look again at what Paul says:  “I have learned the secret of being content.”  Contentment can be learned with God’s grace. 

In fact, Paul had to learn it.  Paul did not have an easy life.  Here’s what Paul says about his line in 2 Corinthians 11: 23-29. 

23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

We don’t have Paul’s problems, but we don’t have easy lives either. To top it off, we live in a culture that wants us to be discontented. For many years, the marketers wanted us to be discontent. Now the marketers, the politicians and our neighbors with anti-everything yard signs want us to be discontent.

We already can feel like we got robbed. We see other people with normal kids, normal spouses, normal parents and a normal life. We feel envy. And we may think that God must have been looking the other way when our loved ones got sick. Or that God doesn’t love us as much as He loves everyone else.

Yes, most of us have head knowledge … Bible knowledge … that the source and strength of all contentment is God himself. Contentment is both a God-given grace and something we can learn. It’s not a denial of suffering or injustice. It’s an inner condition of our hearts that is cultivated over time. Let’s look at what contentment is and what it is not.

What Contentment Is

True contentment is inner peace and calmness. If you look calm on the outside, but you’re a frantic basket case on the inside, you’re not content.

To be content, you have to feel the pain of your suffering. God uses this to help us find contentment in Jesus. So, in an odd way, you have feel enormous discontent to get to the point where you learn to be feel content.

Contentment comes from within. You can’t distract your situation away. Or commit sin (such as sinking into substance abuse of one kind or another) to avoid it.

My church’s founding pastor Rich Nathan gave a sermon in 2004 that offered a three-part plan to develop contentment that I can’t improve on at all. 

Three Steps to Contentment

No. 1:  Acknowledge God’s sovereignty over your life. Practice surrender.

The Bible teaches that everything, even our loved one’s illnesses, have to pass through God’s hands before they happen. As Elisabeth Elliott put it: “Whatever happens is assigned.”

God’s power is unlimited, and he rules all our lives.

Matthew 10:29-30:  Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  The very hairs on your head are all numbered.”

Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who live him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  We will never suffer trials unless God allows them and watches over them.

The most important example of a person who trusted God under terrible circumstances was Jesus himself.  Have we ever been in so much agony that we sweat blood over it?  Yes, Jesus understands how we feel.

And we learn things from suffering that we probably couldn’t learn anywhere else: reliance on grace, humility, perseverance, quality prayer, faith, trust, a real relationship with God.

Rich suggested that we engage in a spiritual exercise when we are upset about our life situation. That we say:  Just for today, I choose to believe that you are in control of my life. Just for today, I will choose to trust that you know what is best for me and for the kingdom. Like Joseph, I’m going to say that others may have intended what happened to me for evil, but you intended it for good.  You are good. Your will is good.

No. 2:  Practice thanksgiving.

Start being grateful for the littlest things:  grass, sky, trees.  Spend a day looking for things to be grateful for.

No. 3: Practice abiding.

This means that you connect with God’s person.  You can do all things through God who strengthens you, but you have to abide in God to do so.

Pastor Rich encouraged us to:

Breathe in the presence of God. Welcome the Holy Spirit into areas that you’ve been grumbling about in the past, areas where you are discontented, areas where you are frustrated. Invite the person of the Holy Spirit to come into that part of your life.

Accept God’s sovereignty.  Offer thanksgiving. Invite God into your situations and abide with him. Contentment will come.

handling bizarre behavior and anger in people with mental illness

Handling Anger, Bizarre Behavior and Negative Symptoms

Information is from “When Someone You Love has a Mental Illness” by Rebecca Woolis, “The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia” by Dr. Kim T. Mueser and Susan Gingerich, and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

The best answers for how to respond to the symptoms of your loved one’s mental illness come from their treatment team. As I’ve said previously in this series, I’ve found it can be hard to get answers from the team quickly. This information below is from respected sources and my own experience to help when you need to respond immediately.

Responding to Anger

First, if you are angry or upset at your loved one, separate until you can calm down. To deal with their anger, you need to remain as calm as you can, and stay in control of yourself. When your loved one is angry:

  • Do not approach or touch your loved one without permission.
  • Give your loved one an escape route out of the situation.
  • Don’t give into angry demands that violate your boundaries.
  • Do not argue with irrational thinking.
  • Acknowledge the person’s feelings.
  • Protect yourself from injury.

If necessary, call the police and ask for an officer trained in dealing with the mentally ill. More cities are creating special units that include social workers and EMTs to respond to mental health crisis calls. This is excellent news, and I hope the trend continues.

If angry outbursts become routine, you need to discuss this when everyone is calm and can agree to some steps.  This could include:

  • A medication review
  • Venting energy via exercises, such as hitting a punching bag or yelling in a place where it won’t bother anyone.

Dealing with Bizarre Behavior

Bizarre behavior is a symptom and is often related to delusions. This can include strange rituals and OCD-like activity and unusual beliefs acted out.

If the behavior is harmless, you can ignore it if you wish.  (For example, if your loved one can’t go get ice cream because everyone can read his mind at Graeter’s). Focus on positive behavior, and ignore bizarre behavior.

If it constitutes a problem (running around the neighborhood naked, doing dangerous things, damaging property, etc.), you can ask the person to stop.  They may or may not be able to do this.

Focus on the consequences.  Tell the loved one that the behavior may end up with them being in jail or the hospital.  You can remind them of previous experience, if applicable.

If necessary, you may need to call 911 and ask for an officer trained in dealing with the mentally ill.

Dealing with Negative Symptoms

Blunted Affect is a facial expression that’s almost blank and conveys no emotion.  The person still feels emotions, but they don’t show them. Ask how they are feeling.

Poverty of Speech means that the person barely speaks. The person cannot help this.  Do things together where the focus is not on talking: shopping, nature walks, movies.

Apathy and Anhedonia are when your loved one no longer enjoys activities or things. Apathy is a symptom, and not under the person’s control.  At the core of this is a belief that activities will not be fun.

  • Acceptance is the first step. “I know he’s doing the best he can.”  “He’s not lazy; this is a symptom of his illness.” “Difficulty doing things and following through are part of this illness.”
  • Invite the loved one to join you in day-to-day activities (grocery shopping, going to the dry cleaner, etc.).
  • Regularly schedule enjoyable activities (going to a museum, going to get pizza, going to a park).  Lower your expectations.
  • Take baby steps and praise progress.
  • Increase daily structure. 
  • Focus on the future, not the past.

I hope this series on dealing with symptoms has been helpful. Please let me know what topics you’d like me to cover in the future.

Handling Symptoms: Hypomania and Agitation

Information is from “When Someone You Love has a Mental Illness” by Rebecca Woolis,  “The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia” by Dr. Kim T. Mueser and Susan Gingerich and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

I’ve found that it’s difficult to get immediate response from my loved one’s treatment team or anyone else when my loved one is dealing with symptoms of mental illness. My first response is to call them. While I’m waiting for a response, I’ve found this advice from the sources above useful.

Responding to Hypomania

Mania and mixed states are a medical emergency, so medical help is needed. If you can’t get a response from the treatment team, consider going to the emergency room or a psychiatric emergency room.

Hypomania can be a common symptom, which your loved one may have to live with repeatedly.

The best advice for those who love them: Don’t take the symptoms personally.  When in the midst of a bipolar episode, people often say or do things that are hurtful or embarrassing. When manic, your loved one may be reckless, cruel, critical and aggressive. Try to remember that the behaviors are symptoms of your loved one’s mental illness, not the result of selfishness or immaturity.

Be prepared for destructive behaviors.  When your loved one is well, negotiate a treatment contract that gives you advance approval for protecting them when symptoms flare up. Agree on specific steps you’ll take, such as removing credit cards or car keys, going together to the doctor, or taking charge of household finances.

Spend time with the person. People who are hypomanic often feel isolated from other people. Spending even short periods of time with them helps. If your loved one has a lot of energy, walk together. This allows your loved one to keep on the move but still share your company.

Avoid intense conversation and arguments.

Prepare easy-to-eat foods and drinks. It’s difficult for your loved one to sit down to a meal during periods of high energy, so try offering them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples, cheese crackers, and juices, for example.

Keep surroundings as quiet as possible. Avoid subjecting your loved one to a lot of activity and stimulation. 

Allow your loved one to sleep whenever possible. During periods of high energy, sleeping is difficult, but short naps throughout the day can help.

Responding to Agitation

Decreasing stimulation can reduce agitation.  You can encourage your loved one to try relaxation exercises, deep breathing or blocking sound using ear plugs.

Responding to Disorganized Speech

Speaking in gibberish is a frightening thing to observe. If you can’t get ahold of the treatment team quickly, you may want to go to the emergency room or the psychiatric emergency room.

Your job is to communicate that you care.  Respond to emotional tone if you can see it.  If you sense fear, talk about how hard fear is to deal with. If you can pick out a sentence that makes sense, you can respond to that.

When one of my loved ones spoke in gibberish, I was able to pick up the tone. I did say that I couldn’t understand what they wanted, which they seemed to understand. We were in an institutional setting so I felt comfortable with this, as I could get help if the frustration spilled over into throwing things.

As I hope I’ve made clear, your treatment team is the best source of information for how to deal with the symptoms of mental illness.

Next time, we’ll discuss responding to anger, bizarre behavior and negative symptoms.

Dealing With Delusions and Hallucinations

Handling the Symptoms of Mental Illness

Note: The information is from NAMI, Mental Health America, “When Someone You Love has a Mental Illness” by Rebecca Woolis,  “The Complete Family Guide to Schizophrenia” by Dr. Kim T. Mueser and Susan Gingerich, and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. It also reflects what I have learned through personal experience.

Some questions that I have heard in our support group include:

  • “What do I say when she says someone on television is sending her secret messages?”
  • “What do I do when he gets the locks changed because he thinks the FBI is trying to get into our house?”
  • “What do I do when he disassembles the pipes to find out where the voices are coming from?”

All these questions are related to delusions and hallucinations, which are symptoms of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (in some cases) and other forms of mental illness.

Three factors that can influence symptoms are inadequate medication, substance abuse, and high levels of stress. About half the people with schizophrenia have symptoms most or all the time, even with medication. Symptoms also can be signs of relapse coming.

Even if your loved one doesn’t have these symptoms, you may be called on to give advice at some point.  Of course, we always point people to the experts.  But it can be hard to get solid advice from a visit to a psychiatrist or to talk to a social worker. So I’m providing the information that I have collected and used in real-world situations as support.

Responding to Delusions and Hallucinations

People vary in their sensitivity about their delusions or hallucinations.  Previous medical history is a fairly good predictor of this. Some signs that a hallucination is taking place include when your loved one is:

  • Talking to themselves as if responding to questions or comments, but not in a conversational way, such as: “Where did I put my purse?”
  • Staring into space, or being distracted or preoccupied.
  • Laughing for no apparent reason.
  • Appearing to see something that you can’t see.

Hallucinations and delusions often start out as benign, but can become more troubling over time.

People can learn to deal with hallucinations through therapy (including cognitive behavioral therapy), medication, ignoring the hallucination, telling the voices to leave them alone or playing music loudly. Shifting attention to music or television can help.  Working toward acceptance through prayer also helps.

Principles to Keep in Mind

When you are dealing with a loved one who seems delusional or may be having auditory or visual hallucinations, there are some basic principles to keep in mind.

While the things they say that they see, hear or believe are not apparent to you and may not make sense, they are very real to that person. They actually hear voices and see images.  They believe the things they are telling you. Do not dismiss or minimize the impact of this. Do not get into an argument about whether the voices are real.

Research shows that confronting people about their delusions may result in an initial decrease of belief in them, followed by a rebound that makes the belief in the delusion stronger.  This discredits you. If you are forced to take a stand on this situation, just say that you know the experience is true for them.

People, particularly those who have been in treatment for some time, may not be entirely convinced that the delusion or hallucination is true.  They know that this can be a symptom of their illness.  If they check with you to see if what they are seeing or hearing is true, you can tell them that it is likely that this is a trick that their mind is playing or whatever term is comfortable for them.

Respond to the Emotional State

A variety of emotional states accompany delusions and hallucinations, ranging from pleasure to terror. It’s more important to respond to the emotional state you detect than to the content of the delusion or hallucination.  Use listening skills like paraphrasing and asking clarifying questions to reflect what you hear. Ask: “What can I do to help you feel safe?”

You can ask if the person is seeing or hearing something. Try to get enough information to determine how they are feeling and focus on that.

Do not make fun of the person or try to have a lengthy conversation about the content of the hallucination.

Keep in mind that your statements may be confusing to the person as well.  If a voice is saying that you are going to kill him, and you are saying everything is fine.  You see the problem.

This is the first of a series on handling the symptoms of mental illness with your loved one. Next time: responding to agitation and hypomania. As always, if you can get advice from the medical team treating your loved one, use that advice instead.

When God Feels Gone

 “The Lord has hidden himself from his people, but I trust him and place my hope in him.”

Isaiah 8:17

God is as real as the Sun, even when we only sense His presence half the time. As caregivers for people suffering from mental illnesses, we all know it’s easier to worship when things are great.

I have had times, usually during or after a mental illness episode in my family, when I feel that God has abandoned me … or doesn’t exist at all.

In “The Purpose-Driven Life,” Rick Warren, whose son died from mental illness, tells us that the deepest level of worship is praising God while you are in pain. When you thank Him during a trial. Trust Him when tempted. Love Him when He seems distant.

God can … and does … mature our relationship with Him during periods of seeming separation, often called dark nights of the soul. When this happens, we have to decide to continue to love, obey and worship God.

David had one of the closest relationships with God recorded in the Bible. God called the shepherd/king “a man after my own heart.”  But the Psalms that he wrote often contain his complaints about a dark night of the soul.

Psalm 10: 1 “Lord, why are you standing aloof and far away?  Why do you hide when I need you the most?”

Psalm 22:1  “Why have you forsaken me? Why do you remain so distant?  Why do you ignore my cries for help, Lord?”

Psalm 43:2 “Why have you abandoned me, God?”

No, God hasn’t abandoned us.  But if a dark night of the soul was this hard for David … and for Mother Teresa … and for Therese of Liseux, it will be hard for us.

God has promised repeatedly, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  (Hebrews 13:5) But does God promise that we will always feel Him with us? No.

It comes on in many ways. One day you pray, and it feels off. You can’t sense God in your quiet time. You have your small group pray for you, but nothing changes. How long will it last? For Mother Teresa, it went on for roughly 50 years, with some breaks. And learning of this after her death in the writings she left behind … well, it shocked everyone who knew her.

Why would God want to distance Himself from Mother Teresa? Or David? Or you, especially as you struggle to deal with a loved one who has a mental illness?

Because He loves us and He wants us to deepen our faith. This dark night of the soul happens to most Christians, thankfully not usually for 50 years. But it may happen more than once.

When God seems gone, we have to make a choice. Either we say “I still believe. Help my unbelief” or we say “God is no good.”

Clearly Mother Teresa chose to stay faithful. That’s why no one knew about her suffering. (She even wanted the letters that contained this information burned at her death. But someone read them and kept them to share.)

You may think God is singling you out, punishing you. The dark night of the soul is no more your fault than the mental illness is. Sin does distance us from God, but this experience usually isn’t connected to any sin. Sometime’s it’s a test of faith.

In his book, “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality,” author Pete Scazzero calls these periods of distance from God “the wall.” He defines this as affiliated with “a crisis that turns our world upside down.” John of the Cross said these times can come to free us from our deepest sins, like pride, greed and envy.

But often experiencing this has nothing to do with sin. It is a test of faith to see if we will continue to love, trust, obey and worship God without a sense of his presence. 

So what do you do?

Scazzero mostly suggests that you keep up your spiritual practices. Warren has four recommendations:

  1. Tell God exactly how you feel.  Pour out your emotions. 
  2. Focus on who God is – his unchanging nature. : good and loving, all-powerful, in control, notices every detail of my life.
  3. Trust God to keep his promises.  Don’t be troubled by trouble.  When you feel abandoned by God yet continue to trust him despite your feelings, you worship him in the deepest way.
  4. Remember what God has already done for you.

In the end, I’ve always ended up like Simon Peter. “To whom shall I go, Lord? You alone have words of eternal life.” But I find my prayer life and connection to God grows stronger after each one of these experiences.

upset parent

Ten Things to Do When You Fear a Relapse

Because mental illness is often episodic, our loved ones can slide into relapses. You also may hear professionals say your loved one is “decompensating.” Many relapses in major mental illness happen when our loved one stops medication, experiences stress, or abuses alcohol or drugs.

When you see your loved one’s particular set of warning signs, you can take these 10 steps. NAMI, Mental Health America and my own family’s experiences provided resources to create this list.

Ten Steps to Take

  1. Meet as a family to discuss the concerns as soon as possible.  When it’s possible, include the ill person. Explain to him why you are concerned. Describe the specific changes you see in behavior and for how long. Reach a consensus about whether you have a problem or not.
  2. Find out whether the person has been taking medication.Start checking as soon as you see the warning signs if you don’t check every day. If the person lives with you, you can count the pills in their medication bottles daily. If the person has stopped taking medication, talk to them about how to improve compliance. They may agree to increased monitoring or receiving reminders. Notify the treatment team if they have stopped taking medication altogether and won’t resume it.
  3. Determine whether your relative has been abusing drugs and/or alcohol. Check for evidence. Remove alcohol and drugs from the house. This is another topic to discuss with the treatment team.
  4. Evaluate your relative’s stress level. What happened just before these changes happened? Do you see any trigger events?
    • Has he experienced a recent life event that’s stressful?
    • Has there been a significant change in routine over the last two weeks or so?
    • Has there been a change in the treatment plan or team?
    • Have there been conflicts with family, friends, coworkers or others?
    • Has there been a change in an important relationship?
    • Has there been an increase in responsibilities?
    • Did he stop participating in activities he enjoyed?
  5. Check current behavior and circumstances against your loved one’s relapse signature. (The information about that is here.
  6. Some classic trigger events are:
    • Staying up too late or all night.
    • Loss or grief.
    • Conflict among loved ones.
    • A change in the season.
    • PMS.
  7. Ask the relative about the answers in your stress evaluation. If stress has been building, find a way to reduce it:
    • Reduce responsibilities.
    • Reduce work or school hours.
    • Add more leisure time.
    • Get or give a temporary loan to reduce money problems.
  8. Call the psychiatrist and case manager to express your concerns. Consider a medication change.
  9. Keep monitoring but try to keep life normal. Regular routines and family fun help to reduce stress for everyone involved. About all, use your toolbox of support ideas for YOU. Taking time to do things you enjoy will help you stay strong enough to be supportive when needed. When you are not feeling well, it’s easy to stop doing things that are good for you. Here are some ideas:
    • Set aside time for extra sleep.
    • Attend a peer support group.
    • Spend time in nature, like going to a park.
    • Write in a journal.
    • Spend extra time in prayer and meditation.
    • Volunteer.
    • Watch a funny movie or TV show.
  10. Help your loved one think about things to stop doing. This could include staying up late, spending time with people who are not supportive, or drinking.
  11. Check back in a few days. Evaluate the situation. Is it better? Or worse?
tired black woman touching head and looking down

Relapse Prevention: Know the Warning Signs

This month is Mental Health Awareness Month. Some of us are aware of mental illness every waking hour because we have a loved one dealing with it. We dread relapses. To help, I’ve collected information from NAMI, Mental Health America and my own reading/experience.

Recognizing the Early Warning Signs

Mental illness, especially bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and clinical depression, is usually episodic. The symptoms vary over time. When your loved one experiences another episode, it is commonly called a relapse.

Please note: Persistent symptoms that continue despite the stabilization of the illness are not signs of a relapse, but are treatment-resistant symptoms.  If the symptoms get worse, it’s a relapse.

Before the relapse, people often experience changes in their feelings, thoughts and behaviors. These are early warning signs. Studies indicate between 50% and 70% of people experience early warning signs over a period of one to four weeks before a relapse.

Looking for early warning signs allows you to start working with your loved one and his treatment providers to minimize the setback. Because you are the most frequent contact with your loved one, you are the one who sees the warning signs. The ill person will not be able to see them.  This blog post explains why.

Common Warning Signs

Each person has their own specific signs or “relapse signature.” But some warning signs are common, including:

  • Feelings of tension, anxiousness or worries.
  • More irritability.
  • Increased sleep disturbance (hearing them up in the night).
  • Depression.
  • Social withdrawal (more extreme, not even leaving his room to eat).
  • Concentration problems (taking longer to do tasks, having trouble finishing tasks, having trouble following a conversation or TV show).
  • Decreasing or stopping medication or treatment (refusing to go to the case manager or doctor, skipping the vocational program).
  • Eating less or eating more.
  • Excessively high or low energy.
  • Loss of interest in doing things.
  • Loss of interest in the way he or she looks / poor hygiene.
  • Being afraid of “going crazy.”
  • Becoming excessive in religious practices.
  • Feeling bothered by thoughts that will not go away.
  • Feeling overwhelmed by demands.
  • Expressing worries about physical problems.

Most common relapse indicators for schizophrenia:

  • Restless or unsettled sleep.
  • Nervousness or tension.
  • Having a hard time concentrating.
  • Isolation.
  • Feeling irritable.
  • Having trouble taking care of routine things.
  • A lack of energy.
  • Feeling sad or depressed.
  • Feeling confused.
  • A change in appetite.

Most common relapse indicators for bipolar disorder:

  • Disturbed or lack of sleep.
  • Talking quickly and more often than usual.
  • Acting reckless.
  • Feeling very tired.
  • Feeling very depressed.

An Off Day or the Start of a Relapse?

Everyone can have an off day. You can feel down in the dumps, with no energy. Or you can seem a little manic.  If a person has had mental health problems, it’s important to consider whether they are having an off day or starting a relapse.

Early warning signs are:

  • A cluster of changes.
  • Happening together.
  • Lasting over a period of time.
  • Gradually getting worse.
  • Following the same pattern as before.

Your Loved One’s Relapse Signature

Think about the last time your loved one got worse. If you keep a journal, look at what you wrote. It helps to think about:

  • What was the time of year?
  • Did your loved one say how they were feeling physically?
  • How was the mood?  The level of concentration?
  • Did any unusual changes in behavior take place in the weeks before the last relapse?
  • Did your relative do things that seemed “out of character” before the last relapse?
  • Have the same behaviors preceded other relapses?

Thinking about what was happening in the person’s life when you start to notice these changes can help too. 

Next time we’ll talk about what to do when your loved one shows signs of relapse.

Managing Depression and Anxiety

Families who have one or more members with severe, persistent mental illness face unique challenges. Complex family dynamics, social isolation and often unpredictable behavior can take their toll. Other ways that mental health issues impact families include:

  • The family may change its rules or patterns.  The ill person may no longer do chores, and the family may withdraw from social situations.
  • Friends may withdraw from the family.
  • Everyone is walking on eggshells around the person.
  • Family members vent their frustration on non-ill family members.
  • Parents may be stricter with non-struggling children.
  • Family members may blame themselves.
  • Family members may become resentful of the ill person for the disruption the illness has caused.
  • Family members may be ashamed of the ill person’s struggle.

Under these circumstances, the primary caregiver or other family members may develop depression and anxiety. This also impacts the entire family. In fact, the additional stress can be overwhelming. But there is hope. The ideas below come from people who have lived experience, as well as NAMI, Mental Health America and the Veterans Administration.

When You Are Struggling

Learn all you can. If you develop depression or anxiety, learn all you can about the illnesses. Taking good care of yourself is critical to caring for your loved ones. Connect with other people experiencing these issues in support groups or meetings. Attend local mental health conferences and conventions. Build a personal library of useful websites and helpful books. Learning is an active thing you can do that gives you a feeling of control where control is possible. Ideally, you should learn about your loved one’s illness as well as depression and anxiety.

Recognize early symptoms. Identify possible warning signs and triggers that may aggravate your depression or anxiety symptoms. With this knowledge, you can recognize an emerging episode and get the help you need as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and family for help—they can help you monitor your symptoms and behavior.

Partner with your health care providers. Give your health care provider all the information he or she needs to help you recover—including any reactions to medications, your symptoms or any triggers you notice. Develop trust and communicate openly.

Know what to do in a crisis. Be familiar with your community’s crisis hotline or emergency walk-in center. Know how to contact them and keep the information handy.

Avoid drugs and alcohol. These substances can disturb emotional balance and interact with medications. You may think using alcohol or drugs will help you “perk up,” but using them can hinder your recovery or make symptoms worse.

Eat well and exercise. To relieve stress, try activities like centering prayer, meditation, yoga or Tai Chi.

Deal with unresolved grief.  Do you have a mixture of persistent feelings of sadness, anger and frustration about your loved one’s mental illness?  Seek more help if you know that you are still grieving over the illness.

Helping Another Family Member  

In these circumstances, some family members may develop depression or anxiety. This is a heavy load for a caregiver dealing with another loved one with mental illness. Getting support is essential for you to continue be helpful. Some suggestions include:

Be proactive in keeping the family as strong as possible.

  • Eat, sleep, connect with other people and turn to God.
  • Take a break when needed.
  • Go places as a family even if the ill person does not go.
  • Encourage all family members to continue with regular activities.
  • Know some days are better than others, and all things pass.
  • Consider family therapy.

Learn more about your loved one’s condition. Learning about depression and anxiety will help you better understand and support your loved one.  They do not need to “hit bottom” to get better. In many cases, hitting bottom means suicide.

Communicate.  Speak kindly and honestly. Don’t scold or blame people with depression or urge them to “try harder” to “just be happy.” Instead, make specific offers of help and follow through with those offers. Tell the person you care about them. Ask them how they feel and truly listen.

React calmly and rationally. You can’t fix the person, but you can walk with them through this time. Even if your family member or friend is in a crisis, it’s important to remain calm. Listen to their concerns and make them feel understood—then take the next step toward getting help.

Find emotional support from others. Share your thoughts, fears and questions with other people who have loved ones with similar conditions. If they won’t get help, you should.

Schedule pleasant events and encourage an increased activity level.  Assist your loved one in making plans at specific times and dates to do something pleasant … a walk in the park, a movie, etc.

Correct unhelpful thinking. Help your loved one challenge thoughts about how things “should” be.  You need to learn about cognitive distortions and how to gently help a loved one to understand them.   I recommend reading  “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” or “The Feeling Good Handbook,” both by David D. Burns.