Mental Illness in the Family
Most people believe that mental disorders are rare and “happen to someone
else." In fact, mental disorders are common and widespread.
An estimated 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder
in a given year.
Recognizing the Warning Signs & How to Cope
Most families are not prepared to cope with learning their loved one
has a mental illness. It can be physically and emotionally trying, and
can make us feel vulnerable to the opinions and judgments of others.
If you think you or someone you know may have a mental or emotional
problem, it is important to remember there is hope and help.
What is mental illness?
A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances
in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s
ordinary demands and routines.
There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of
the more common disorders are depression,
disorder, dementia, schizophrenia
and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality,
personal habits and/or social withdrawl.
Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular
situation or series of events. As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease,
mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological.
Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses,
genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With
proper care and treatment many individuals learn to cope or recover from
a mental illness or emotional disorder.
How to cope day-to-day
Accept your feelings
Despite the different symptoms and types of mental
illnesses, many families who have a loved one with mental illness, share
similar experiences. You may find yourself denying the warning signs, worrying
what other people will think because of the stigma, or wondering what caused
your loved one to become ill. Accept that these feelings are normal and
common among families going through similar situations. Find out all you
can about your loved one’s illness by reading and talking with mental health
professionals. Share what you have learned with others.
Handling unusual behavior
The outward signs of a mental illness are often behavioral. Individuals
may be extremely quiet or withdrawn. Conversely, he or she may burst
into tears or have outbursts of anger. Even after treatment has started,
individuals with a mental illness can exhibit anti-social behaviors.
When in public, these behaviors can be disruptive and difficult to accept.
The next time you and your family member visit your doctor or mental
health professional, discuss these behaviors and develop a strategy for
Establishing a support network
Whenever possible, seek support from friends and
family members. If you feel you cannot discuss your situation with friends
or other family members, find a self-help or support group. These groups
provide an opportunity for you to talk to other people who are experiencing
the same type of problems. They can listen and offer valuable advice.
Therapy can be beneficial for both the individual
with mental illness and other family members. A mental health professional
can suggest ways to cope and better understand your loved one’s illness.
When looking for a therapist, be patient and talk
to a few professionals so you can choose the person that is right for you
and your family. It may take time until you are comfortable, but
in the long run you will be glad you sought help.
Taking time out
It is common for the person with the mental illness
to become the focus of family life. When this happens, other members
of the family may feel ignored or resentful. Some may find it difficult
to pursue their own interests.
If you are the caregiver, you need some time for yourself. Schedule
time away to prevent becoming frustrated or angry. If you
schedule time for yourself it will help you to keep things in perspective
and you may have more patience and compassion for coping or helping your
loved one. Only when you are physically and emotionally healthy can you
“Many families who have a loved one with mental illness share similar
It is important to remember that there is hope for recovery, and that
with treatment many people with mental illness return to a productive and
Warning Signs and Symptoms
To learn more about symptoms that are specific to
a particular mental illness, refer to the NMHA brochure on that illness.
The following are signs that your loved one may want to speak to a medical
or mental health professional.
In older children and pre-adolescents:
prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
feelings of extreme highs and lows
excessive fears, worries and anxieties
dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
strong feelings of anger
delusions or hallucinations
growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
denial of obvious problems
numerous unexplained physical ailments
In younger children:
inability to cope with problems and daily activities
change in sleeping and/or eating habits
excessive complaints of physical ailments
defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
intense fear of weight gain
prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts
frequent outbursts of anger
changes in school performance
poor grades despite strong efforts
excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
persistent disobedience or aggression
frequent temper tantrums
Mental Illness in the Family: Part 1 Recognizing the Warning Signs
& How to Cope is one in a series of pamphlets on helping family
members with mental illness. Other NMHA titles include:
NMHA offers additional pamphlets on a variety
of mental health topics. For more information or to order multiple copies
of pamphlets, please call 1-800-969-NMHA
This pamphlet is copyrighted. Permission to reprint must be obtained from
Copyright 1997 Revised 2/00
For More Information:
Contact your local Mental
Health Association, community mental health center, or:
National Mental Health Association
2001 N. Beauregard Street, 12th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
Health Resource Center 800/969-NMHA
TTY Line 800/433-5959
Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS)
Knowledge Exchange Network
5600 Fishers Lane, Room 13-103
Rockville, MD 20857
American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Phone 800-374-2721 or 202-336-5500
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)
200 N Glebe Road, Ste. 1015
Arlington, VA 22203-3457
Phone 800-950-6264 or 703-524-7600
American Psychiatric Association
1400 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Information Resources and Inquiries Branch
5600 Fishers Lane, Room 7C-02
Rockville, MD 20857
NMHA's Campaign for America's Mental Health works to raise awareness
that mental illnesses are common, real and treatable illnesses and ensure
that those most at-risk receive proper, timely and effective treatment.Click
here for more information.
The Campaign is made possible through unrestricted educational grants
from the following corporations:
Founding Sponsor - Eli Lilly and Company
Campaign Sponsors - Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb
Company, Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, Eli Lilly and Company, Forest
Laboratories, Inc., Organon Inc., Pfizer Inc, and Wyeth-Ayerst Pharmaceuticals.