The families and care-givers of people suffering from one of many mental illnesses are sometimes faced with an extremely daunting task. Besides the pain of watching a loved one suffer, there is often a lot of shame, resentment and guilt. It is often very difficult for families to accept the illness and adjust to the fact that despite all their efforts the condition of their loved one may get worse.
Due to the stigma attached to mental illness, society often makes the task of caring for someone with a mental illness harder. It is a reality that these people and their families encounter discrimination from an apprehensive public, including friends, extended family, employers, medical aids and sometimes even from the medical sector.
Living with and caring for someone with a mental illness is difficult at times and may cause problems within the family. Relationships may be in disarray in the confusion surrounding the mental disorder and it may be necessary to renegotiate emotional relationships. The entire family may experience a sense of loss - the loss of what they had and the loss of what they now may never have, which can lead to a cauldron of emotions like grief, guilt, fear, anger, sadness, hurt and confusion. The intensity of emotion in these difficult stages often brings out a survival -oriented response in many family members, where emotions are shut down, but this inability to talk about feelings may leave people feeling stuck or frozen. It is extremely important to find someone to speak to as if these feelings are not acknowledges they may spill out and cause conflict in a number of relationships, usually those closest to you.
If you are finding it difficult to speak with certain family members because they are still in denial of the illness, allow them to maintain this denial if they need it. Seek out others whom you can talk to. You are not alone. There are a number of support groups where you will be able to share your thoughts and feelings. It is traumatic to care for someone with a mental illness and receiving support and help is essential. The Depression and Anxiety Support Group has a number of support groups around the country, for sufferers and their care-givers, as well as trained telephone counsellors if you need referrals or just to speak to someone who understands. They can be contacted, Monday to Friday, 8am to 7pm, and on Saturdays from 8am to 5pm, on (011) 783-1474/6.
Fortunately though, after the denial, sadness and anger, eventually comes acceptance. An understanding of what the ill family member is going through brings compassion and empathy. This allows the family to separate the disorder from the person and to continue to love and care for the person, even if they hate the disorder.
This acceptance entails understanding that mental illnesses are like any other medical illness, caused by a number of factors, and part of the fabric of life. Blaming yourself only leads to resentment, as does taking on too much responsibility and giving too much. Sacrificing your needs for the needs of the ill family member is not healthy, as if you do not look after yourself you can't care for another. You are still entitled to your own life journey, as is your loved one.
Maintain your role as child, parent or sibling. You are not a paid mental health professional and the recovery of your loved one is not your sole responsibility. Work together with mental health professionals to ensure your loved one gets the best treatment possible. Don't be scared to ask questions. The more you understand the better. By recognizing the limits of your loved ones capabilities you will learn that this does not mean you can't expect anything from them.
For most care-givers there are also benefits - an increased awareness, sensitivity, receptivity, compassion and maturity and less of a tendency to be judgemental and self-centred. Many learn a lot about themselves as they learn about their family member's disorder and discover their own strength and the importance of caring for their own needs. Ultimately it is a journey, like all others, with ups and downs - those of your loved one, other family members and your own in which it is important to keep your sense of humour and accept help when you need it.