When depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or another mental illness enter a family, the emotional cost can be high and family members can be deeply affected. Depending on their circumstances, they may struggle to help a family member who doesn’t have access to care or may not want assistance. They will need to learn how to support and encourage their loved one, and cope with the range of symptoms and behaviors of the illness.
Whether the situation is having an adult son with bipolar disorder return to live at home with mom or a teen with sky-high anxiety refusing to attend school, the whole family is affected. Or, imagine that your spouse has severe symptoms of schizophrenia but refuses to take medications.
These are just a few of the situations that people talk about in the Family Connection Support Group. “I’m exhausted. What am I supposed to do?” asks a father experiencing compassion fatigue. Another asks, “How do I take care of myself in all this chaos?” As group members open up and reveal their stories, all feel strengthened and less isolated.
Caregivers need support, too.
As the facilitator, I usually begin the evening with a review of our pledge to respect the confidentiality of each person’s story that he or she brings to the group. I suggest members share as much or as little as they are comfortable doing and invite each to offer their first name and a little about their situation. Once we finish the initial introductions, the discussion evolves as people go deeper into their problems and questions, allowing each session to cover many topics.
“I don’t feel so alone now,” one woman comments. “It’s a huge help being able to talk to people who really understand.” Others are grateful for the discussions about ways to deal with the issues they bring up.
Some of the top issues for family members and caregivers are:
- The mental illness often becomes the family’s primary focus
- Family members have different perceptions of the problem and have conflicts about the solutions
- Feelings of helplessness, frustration, loss, guilt and compassion fatigue
“How have you gotten through this so far?”
At some point in the group I will ask members to share the ways they are coping. We often review the 10 coping skills that are most effective in these situations. “Sometimes when we do not have the power to change the situation, we need to find ways to survive as best we can,” I often share.
10 Coping Skills for Caregivers
- Ask for help from friends, your pastor, doctor, a counselor, support group.
- Learn about the diagnosis, but don’t define the person by it.
- Work on your relationship with the person. Spend time together, encourage, be supportive and empathetic, work toward understanding the person’s thinking.
- Set healthy boundaries. Make decisions together when possible. Learn the difference between helping and enabling.
- Keep a balance of self-energizing activities in your life.
- Use prayer, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, deep breathing, exercise, regular sleep and good nutrition, along with constructive self-talk such as, “We can get through this.”
- Have a basic plan for mental health emergencies like suicidal thoughts or violence. Know how to reach a mental health inpatient facility quickly.
- Encourage the member to follow through with therapy recommendations.
- Express your anger and frustration in a compassionate and constructive manner. Work on being sad instead of mad.
- Accept partial solutions when they occur. Be realistic in your expectations and focus your energy on what you can do.
Are you overwhelmed due to stress in your family that is magnified by the presence of a mental illness?
The Family Connection is a twice-monthly support group for spouses, parents, siblings, and other caregivers who are seeking support to more effectively deal with the stresses created by the symptoms and/or behaviors of family members who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. Dealing with a family member who has symptoms of depression, bipolar depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and others can be a significant stressor for other members or caregivers in the family.
We learn about the various types of mental illnesses, medications, empathy, healthy boundaries versus enabling, stigma and talk about possible ways to respond to various behaviors of the family member.
- Pine Rest Southwest Clinic
4211 Parkway Place
Grandville, Michigan 49418
- 2nd Monday of each month (excluding holidays), 5:30 – 6:45 p.m.
- Offered at no cost. Opportunity to donate is offered but not necessary.
First time attendees may register in two ways:
1. Call the Southwest Clinic at 616-222-3700 and leave a message.
2. Send an email to jim.vandermay@Pinerest.org to register or ask questions about the group.
- When Someone You Love Is Depressed, by Rosen and Amador
- Boundaries, by Cloud and Townsend
- The Enabler: When Helping Hurts the Ones You Love, by Angelyn Miller
- When Our Grown Children Disappoint Us, by Jane Adams
- I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help, by Xavier Amador
- People Can’t Drive You Crazy if You Don’t Give Them the Keys, by Mike Bechtle
- Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence, by Sarah Young
- Pine Rest Website: pinerest.org/resources
- NAMI (National Alliance for Mentally Ill) local chapters: nami.org
Jim Vander May, ACSW, LMSW is a Licensed Social Worker with over 45 years of experience in the mental health field. He received a BA from Calvin College, an MA degree from Michigan State University, and an MSW from Western Michigan University. Jim has additional training in several areas: psychodrama, EMDR and Emotional Freedom Techniques.