On Mental Illness: Caring for A Mentally Ill Family Member

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday February 22, 2011 - 01:18:00 PM

Persons with mental illness may suffer an episode of acute symptoms even if taking medications as prescribed. An acute episode or in some cases, a longer period of severe mental illness affects the afflicted person, but also puts a strain on family members. 

For this week’s column, I drew upon my personal experience, interviewed one family member of a mentally ill person, and heard another person speak. I have removed all identifying information. 

Whether parent, sibling or spouse, they must care for the afflicted person while still dealing with the world at large. When family members also become caregivers, it is often a test of their constitution. Caring for a spouse with acute symptoms can be lonely. It can be heart-rending to know that your life partner is temporarily “away”: despite he or she being physically present. When the caregiver is also mentally ill, the stress level can become extreme. One is trying to care for the ill family member, while keeping oneself intact. 

It can be a thankless job. If that person is irrational, he or she may blame the caregiver for the things perceived as wrong. The one receiving care may resent the caregiver for pushing medication and other treatment. The caregiver may be thinking of how life would be better if not bogged down with taking care of an ungrateful family member. A parent of a mentally ill daughter or son may have to provide financial support for offspring who haven’t yet moved out. The financial drain is less if the parent can convince their child to apply for SSI, or SSDI. While usually just SSI doesn’t provide enough to live on, the amount it does pay allows for partial independence. Getting the adult child to apply for these benefits can be challenging if the child doesn’t want to acknowledge having a psychiatric condition. 

Parents can be proud of their offspring’s achievements while still wanting more for them. Sometimes, offspring with a mental illness find it difficult to reach out socially. This can make he or she more dependent emotionally on parents. Parents would generally like to see their offspring succeed at some type of career related vocation, even if it is not a job that provides financial self-support. They would like to see offspring find friends and attend social events. Most persons with mental illness will eventually get there; it just takes a little longer. Sometimes, finding the right balance of medication can make the difference. 

Acknowledging that one has a mental illness is never easy. But once done, it opens the door to further progress. 

It is possible for an amateur caregiver to get in way over his or her head. In 1995, I tried to help a friend (not a relative) who turned out to be assaultive and who ended up being violent and very dangerous. He trashed my apartment and threw a heavy steel chair out a second floor window, not knowing who or what could be below. He also cleaned out my bank account, and this led to my being unable to pay rent. When someone is too far out of control, a non equipped individual should defer to professional people for that person’s care. 

I once met a middle-aged man who spoke about caring for his schizophrenic son. He was in tears at one point because he needed to maintain his steady job with benefits rather than pursue a less certain, more ambitious route. The steady job’s pay and medical benefits made him able to get medical treatment for, and support his son. It seems that in many instances, caring for a mentally ill loved-one cause family to sacrifice other things in life. It is daunting to think that the person you are caring for may need this type of help of the rest of his or her life. More than likely, that person will experience some level of recovery, and won’t need indefinite care. 

Ultimately, if the mentally ill person doesn’t get well, he or she might need to participate in some sort of program. This could be a day treatment in which there are activities and talk therapy. One may resent participating in programs that are intended for persons with mental illness. But despite the resentment, if one participates, one often benefits. The caregiver should not try to go it alone. It is important to get help from the mental health treatment system, from other family members, and possibly from friends. Trying to do such a thing alone will only undermine the one who is providing the care.