How to Come Out of the Closet About Family Mental Illness

It’s the thing we don’t even want to think about, let alone discuss with others. It’s the addiction, the chronic depression, the agoraphobia, the stint in the psych ward. When mental illness invades our homes we tend to isolate and wall off, either out of shame, or fear, or from simply not knowing what to say or do. In some cases, the mental illness of a family member is so time consuming and emotionally draining that it is hard to muster the extra energy to even reach out for the help we so desperately need.

But drawing deeper inside guarantees to exacerbate the problem. For the health of the family, if not the individual who is suffering, mindful and intentional exposure is imperative. This is where we must begin to fight hard against our pride and push past the stigma that keeps us silent.

Sadly, in the case of mental illness, support, friendship and casseroles don’t usually come knocking. Even closest friends and neighbors may not know how to appropriately respond to the news that your son suffered an overdose and is now in treatment, or that your husband is showing symptoms of schizophrenia, or that your wife is afraid to leave the house. We must actively pursue support.

When someone has surgery or cancer, members of your community or your personal support system swoop in with meals and offers to assist wherever needed. Mental illness doesn’t garner this kind of attention or affection. It doesn’t mean that people don’t want to help, just that they often don’t know what would be helpful. This is where boldness is in order. An honest expression of need shows others how they can best help you in the midst of the unique challenge you face.

Reaching Out for Support Helps Everyone

We have to have support — not only in practical ways, but emotionally as well. Don’t think you can keep it together on your own or that no one needs to know. That’s pride and it can be dangerous and detrimental to you, your family and the one suffering with mental illness. Let your burden connect you to others, not detach from them. Admit you are afraid, angry, that you have no idea what you are doing or what is going to happen. Ask for help and then let others respond, receiving their care with grace.

Through your candor you can also help others to not be afraid of mental illness. Though intuitively most of society knows that mental illness isn’t contagious, there is a fear in confronting it and getting close to it. We fear that somehow we will become more aware of our own tendencies to mentally derail. We fear what we do not understand.

If you have mental illness in your family, education and awareness start with you. You can’t make other people understand or force them to be compassionate, but you can help them to see what compassion in this situation would look like. You can help them to understand what it means to live with someone who has mental illness — what can be expected and what cannot.

A support group can be a lifeline. You cannot go through this alone and you don’t have to. As you learn to get some of your emotional needs met through a strong group of individuals in similar situations, you may find you need so much less from your close family and friends. You are getting these needs met by people who have first-hand experience. A support group can also help you to learn how to talk to others about the illness and what your family is going through. And you never know when your candor may help to bring someone else’s hidden story or challenges with mental illness to light. Silence serves no one and only keeps us sick and suffering in isolation.

If you are a part of a faith community, speak with a coordinator there about initiatives for supporting families dealing with mental illness. Many churches have ministries for reaching out with meals and other practical forms of support for those who are ill, have been hospitalized or who have undergone surgery, but, perhaps unintentionally, those with mental illness and their families are often overlooked. You can help these ministries to understand the burden and stresses of dealing with this kind of illness and encourage them to see the importance of reaching out with practical support and tangible compassion.

With mental illness in your family, many times you will find you must advocate for yourself and your family against your own desire to sweep things under the rug or maintain appearances. However, your voice can bring not only the help you and your family genuinely need but may also ensure the same for other families like yours as the stigma of mental illness is dismantled, family by family.

On March 13th, 2014, posted in: Mental Health by Tags: ,