A diagnosis of mental illness like anxiety or a mood disorder in one family member affects the whole family. It can bring a strain on relationships and can be trying 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 is and how to best deal with it. But it can lead to fractures in families, serious disagreement and sometimes estrangement.
First of all its scary. Most of our experiences with the mentally ill has been in movies. They portray mental illness as something to be ashamed of , afraid of, afraid you’ll be hurt in some way by someone who has a brain disease. It is not as taboo as it used to be to talk about it but there is still a stigma attached to mental illness.
When I found out that I had Bipolar 1, I educated myself on the illness. It’s important for families to be educated as well in order to understand the person and the illness and the best way to help the person. Out of fear sometimes people don’t want to really know what is going on in a mental person’s mind unless maybe it is a close family member. I’m pretty sure that most of my family members don’t have a clue as to what a person with say, Bipolar 1 goes through. Why would they know. I don’t live with any of them and I believe that you need to spend time with a person with mental illness in order to understand or even get a clue as to what I go through on a daily basis just to function.
Recently I had a severe episode to where I just wanted to die. No particular reason, there were several reasons. It’s difficult for some to tryly be happy for another especially when your own life is falling apart. I believe if my family knew how seriously mentally Bipolar 1 is they would stand up and take notice. I don’t just need a bandaid over my wounds I need treatment, inpatient treatment. I was in treatment Fifteen years ago when I was first diagnosed with Bipolar 1.
Below, therapists share several common myths and misunderstandings about mental illness.
Myth: People can control their symptoms with sheer willpower.
As clinician Julie Hanks, LCSW, said, “Telling someone struggling with depression to ‘cheer up’ or telling an individual with an anxiety disorder to ‘stop worrying so much’ is like telling a person with diabetes to simply ‘lower your blood sugar level.’”
Believing that someone can control their illness isn’t just unhelpful; it “may create additional layers of pain and shame when the person suffering fails to make themselves ‘feel better,’” she said.
Myth: People have a physical illness, but people are their mental illness.
This inaccurate belief actually makes it difficult for people to distinguish between their identity and their illness, said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and professor in Pasadena, Calif. And this can sabotage their recovery.
For instance, if an individual thinks “I am OCD,” they’ll have a tough time imagining that someday they won’t struggle with obsessions, Howes said.
“With one in four people experiencing a mental illness in their lifetime, it’s important [people] know their identity is much greater than a simple label or diagnosis,” he said. That’s why in graduate school Howes and his classmates were taught to say a “man with depression” instead of “a depressive” or a “woman with schizophrenia,” instead of “a schizophrenic.”
Remember that “You aren’t your diagnosis, you are a complex, vital person coping with an illness,” Howes said.
Myth: Bad parenting causes mental illness.
Even educated and experienced professionals make the mistake of pointing the finger at parents, according to Ashley Solomon, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who blogs at Nourishing the Soul. “With most mental health issues, we can’t easily point to sun exposure or an extra chromosome to explain why a particular person is suffering,” she said.
So we focus on what’s at the forefront: Parents who might be struggling to parent their kids, she said. Families can play a role in mental illness. “Certainly we know that things like abuse and neglect literally change our brain chemistry, and can prime us for future mental health issues,” Solomon said.
But blaming parents “is reductive and often serves only to alienate the people that could be an individual’s greatest support,” she said.
A single factor doesn’t cause mental illness, she said. Instead, a complex combination of contributing factors, including biology, genetics and environment, does.
Myth: Medication is the only solution for mental illness.
For some mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, medication is a critical part of treatment. But for all mental illnesses a comprehensive approach is key.
“Medications work on one aspect of our bodies — neurotransmitters — but can’t make up for major problems in areas of nutrition, sleep, muscle tension, physical alignment, relationship strain, and so on,” Solomon said.
This is why psychotherapy, lifestyle changes and some alternative treatments are important for managing mental illness and leading a fulfilling life, she said.
While Borchard ends her piece by saying she needs to lower her expectations, because many people just don’t get it, I think we can do better. Mental illness touches everyone. Educating yourself is never a waste. Learn the realities of mental illness — and support someone who really needs it.
Contributor Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master’s degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University.
The individual who has an illness such as depression, bipolar disorder or anxiety has his or her world changed (temporarily) and is usually looking for relief from emotional pain, as well as support and understanding. Often times this person feels mis-understood, 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.” They 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 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.
Dealing with a family member who has a mood disorder or anxiety 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 wellbeing, and overhanging fear of a potential suicide attempt. When pressed, fatigued and frustrated, family members may snap out less effective comments as those above. That leads to further anger and resentment.
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 illness as an illness and how well educated they have become about it. And some family members come with a bias about mental illness 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.
Contribution: Susan J. Noonan, MD, is a physician, patient, and the author of Managing Your Depression: What You Can Do To Feel Better, and When Someone You Know Has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do.