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Living With Someone Who Has a Mental Illness
by Dr. Dale V. Atkins, July 2010

If you find it difficult to come to terms with your sibling's or parent's mental illness, there are many others who share your difficulty. Most siblings and adult children of people with psychiatric disorders find that mental illness in a brother, sister, or parent changes everyone's life in the most basic ways.

Strange, unpredictable behaviors in a loved one can be experienced as devastating, and your anxiety can increase as you struggle with each episode of illness and worry about the future. It seems impossible at first, but most siblings and adult children find that over time they do gain the knowledge and skills to cope with mental illness effectively. They do have strengths they never knew they had, and they can meet situations they never even anticipated.

Begin by finding out as much as possible about mental illness. Read and talk with other families. Methods of treatment are consistently being reevaluated, so keeping up to date with the most appropriate approach can be of great value. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has books, pamphlets, fact sheets, and tapes available about various illnesses, treatments, and related issues. For other resources and contact information about your state and local NAMI affiliates, call the HelpLine at 1-800/950-6264.

Remember that you cannot cure a mental disorder for a parent or sibling. No one is to blame for the illness, and despite your best efforts, your loved one's symptoms may get worse, or they may improve. It is helpful (but not necessary) that everyone in the family accept the disorder. Certainly everyone needs to adapt and this may require revising expectations of themselves and of the person with the diagnosis.

Some family members become so preoccupied with their parent or sibling that they neglect their own needs and well-being. Participating in a support group and/or talking with a therapist can help deal challenges. Share with your friends who are non-judgmental, and if you have the energy and the disposition, educate them because mental and emotional disorders are generally poorly understood. Find time for yourself, for hobbies, walks, jogging, sports, and writing.

Allow yourself to reminisce about happier times. Try to find pleasure in the positive moments. Look through photographs of better days, read old love letters, and watch family videos. Spend time with other family members talking about wonderful family stories. Finally, remind yourself continually throughout the day that there can be better times ahead. Make it a mantra.



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