A behavioral health and or addiction disorder in one family member affects the whole family. It might bring a strain on relationships and can be wearing on the entire family in addition to the effects it has on the individual. These responses are not intentional; they usually arise because of differences in understanding what a mental illness and addiction is and how to best deal with it. But it can lead to fractures in families, serious disagreement and sometimes estrangement.
The individual who has a behavioral health or addiction illness has his or her world changed and is usually looking for relief from emotional pain, as well as support and understanding. Often times this person feels misunderstood, that his family or friends just don’t “get” it or think that what bothers him is important. He may feel dismissed, that his concerns and emotions are not valid and thus may need repeated reassurance of this. He may hear messages like “pull yourself together” or “get over it.” These messages are not helpful in the long run as they show no understanding of the depression or anxiety as a biologic illness. Statements like these assume the individual has control over the illness, which is false. A person who has a mental illness or an addiction cannot control the illness, but he does have some control on how he manages and responds to having the condition. When differences in understanding exist in families, it can be the cause of strain, resentment, arguments and more.
The family members of someone who has a mental illness often feel perplexed. They are usually trying to do their best to offer support and understanding, in so far as they are able. Often times they are doing this without a compass, without clear direction as to the most effective approach. They may not know the most effective thing to say or do. So there could be inconsistencies and variations in their ability to respond. Some family members are good at it; some not so much. A lot has to do with their understanding of the condition as an illness and how well educated they have become about it. And some family members come with a bias about mental illness or addiction that includes strong beliefs about it being a weakness or character flaw or that you are lazy and not trying hard enough. These deeply ingrained views are hard to confront, and are not helpful to hear when in the midst of an episode.
Dealing with a family member with a mental illness or addiction can also take a lot of effort on a family member, even be exhausting. There’s dealing with the daily distortions in thinking and behavior, frequent medical appointments, added time and expenses devoted to the individual. It can be disruptive to the flow of the entire family’s routines and patterns, which is stressful over time. It may entail late night phone calls or conversations, continued concerns over their loved one’s health and well-being, and overhanging fear of a potential suicide attempt or overdose. When pressed, fatigued and frustrated family members may snap and make comments that are less than helpful. That leads to further anger and resentment.
Help for Family Members
It is important that family members become better educated about mental illness as a biologic illness, and to learn a few key steps in how to effectively manage it. This might be difficult to do if one family member believes in the stigma or biases related to mental illness or addiction. It’s best to go slow here, sharing information in small bites rather than all at once. Open communication and honesty are essential to building trust. Both the individual and his or her family members also need to be patient with one another. In addition, people often find it helpful to participate in family meetings as a way to learn more about the illness and how to best help. Try to do this before things fall apart, before anger and resentment color all communications.
If things do fall apart and there is personal estrangement, that does not necessarily mean it is forever. Hurt feelings heal over time, distorted views about mental illness and/or addiction can be corrected with enough work and motivation. You have to decide what’s best and healthiest for you and the whole family. Yes, some relationships are toxic and must be avoided. Others can be mended, with great effort. When motivated, people can surprise you and change their line of thinking!
Family education: Many CenterPointe treatment centers offer educational services to improve loved ones’ ability to understand what the individual in treatment has been experiencing, and what they can expect both during and after his or her time in treatment. Family education may be conducted via in-person group sessions, over the phone, or via resource materials that are provided to family members. Examples of topics that may be included in family education sessions include information about a specific mental health disorder, the disease model of addiction and the impact of addiction on the family.
Family support: Family members may benefit from ongoing support as they deal both with their own issues and the challenges posed by their loved one’s disorder and recovery. For that reason, many CenterPointe programs introduce family members to support organizations and similar community-based resources that are located near where they live. Though these support services may not be affiliated with CenterPointe, we understand the importance of ensuring that family members have access to such resources, and we are proud to provide referrals and similar introductions for the betterment of those we treat and their loved ones.
For more information about how CenterPointe is uniquely prepared to help friends and family members of individuals who are cared for at our programs, please contact any of our CenterPointe treatment centers at your convenience.