Family Mental Illness - Coping

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Family Mental Illness - Coping

Experience and Coping Strategies of Living with Mental Illness

"The mental illness of a family member is an unexpected event that disrupts the usual sense of continuity an rhythm in the lifecycle with a profound impact on young family members". (Marsh & Dickens, 1997, p.51)

Mental illness disrupts lives in the following ways:


  • economic hardship
  • frequent changes of home/residence
  • separation/divorce
  • secrecy due to the stigma of mental illness
  • distancing of neighbors & family members due to a lack of understanding of mental illness
  • avoidance of friends due to an unstable home environment


Quite often youth experience Parentification -- that is a role reversal. Often one or more children in the family assume an adult role & take over household responsibilities as well as caretaking of other siblings due to the unavailability of a parent or inability of a parent to perform necessary household and caretaking tasks. Usually the parent and child lack bonding experiences which can result in impaired social experiences.

When a psychotic outbreak, episode or suicide attempt occurs there is an increased reliance and dependence of the ill family member on the rest of the members. Quite often the ill member is in denial of the outbreak and usually experiences confusion, anger and despair. The ill member needs a safe place, food and lots of rest. Meanwhile.....

The rest of the family members are left in a state of shock, crisis and chaos while left to care for the needs of the ill family member. Usually everyone attempts to normalize the experience and to compensate for the disruptive force of the mental illness. The ill member is unaware of the family's unmet needs of the parent's), or children. The spouse is often tending to the ill member, hence children's needs are forgotten.

The social and emotional impact of Mental Illness includes:

  • shame, due to stigma and secrecy of the mental illness
  • feeling as if your 'head is in the sand'
  • frequent state of crisis, chaos, shock & denial
  • hoping against hope that an additional crisis will not occur & the ill member will be healed
  • disillusionment, confusion & feelings of hopelessness
  • loss of an adult role model (if it is mentally ill parent)
  • anger, guilt, frustration or resentment due to unmet needs and the inability to help the ill family member
  • perpetual loss
  • empathetic pain for other family members
  • feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • shattered trust
  • often and unclear sense of reality
  • low self-concept
  • unmet needs

Coping Strategies:

  • Do not do anything harmful to yourself
  • Establish and set goals for yourself
  • Find healthy avenues of escape, to divert or distract yourself such as: reading, jogging, sports, visit friends or becoming involved in activities outside the home
  • Seek the support of professionals, such as a therapist, doctor, etc.
  • Recognize or establish boundaries between yourself and the ill member
  • Educate yourself about the illness
  • Engage in activities and associate with individuals who reinforce or boost your self-esteem


2005 Author: Pauline Fitzgerald, MA, RCC

Connections Counselling / / 604-850-8685

About The Author
Pauline Fitzgerald has been involved in counselling for twenty years; first as a paraprofessional, on crisis lines, peer counselling at university and as a volunteer in many organizations. For the past ten years she has worked in education, offering knowledge, compassion and caring to teens, children, families and staff. In 1999 Pauline began working as a counsellor at both high schools and elementary schools. Here she offered her support to children, teens, teachers and parents. Her honest, compassionate, accepting, caring demeanor, accompanied by a keen sense of humour endear her to youth and adults alike.

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