Mental illness is a silent epidemic that touches nearly every family. Despite its prevalence, many people still believe that mental health conditions are rare and only happen to "someone else." In reality, nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness.1
When a loved one struggles with a mental illness, it can be a devastating and overwhelming experience for the entire family. If you or someone in your family is dealing with a mental illness or simply want to educate yourself about this topic, this article will help.
What is Mental Illness?
Mental illnesses are a serious reality that affects tens of millions of people, causing a significant negative impact on their lives. These conditions can affect a person's ability to think, feel and behave normally, disrupting their daily activities, relationships, and overall well-being. It can be a challenging and isolating experience for those suffering as well as their family members and those close to them.
For those who are living with a mental illness, the daily struggles can be unbearable. Their mental state can prevent them from thinking, feeling, or acting as they want to. This can manifest in various ways, from experiencing extreme and unexpected mood swings to the inability to think clearly or communicate effectively with others. Some may even experience bizarre thoughts and strange feelings that are difficult to explain.
There are nearly 300 mental disorders listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This is a handbook used by health professionals to help identify and diagnose mental illness.2 These include common disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders.
What Causes Mental Illness?
Various factors can cause mental illness and mental disorders, and it's not always clear what causes them. Some possible causes include the following:
- Chemical imbalances in the brain.
- Trauma and chronic stress.
- Environmental factors (e.g., exposure to certain toxins or pollutants that affect brain development).
- Some medical conditions (e.g., head injury, infection, chronic illness).
Warning Signs and Symptoms
As a loved one, it can be incredibly difficult to watch someone you care about struggle with a mental illness.
One of the most important things to pay attention to is sudden changes in thoughts and behaviors that are not due to recent substance use or another medical condition. This can include changes in mood, personality, personal habits, and social withdrawal.
It's also important to remember that the onset of several symptoms indicates a problem that should be assessed. This is especially true if the symptoms are severe or have a significant impact on daily life.
Symptoms In Adults, Young Adults, and Adolescents:
- Confused thinking and difficulty focusing.
- Prolonged feelings of sadness or irritability.
- Experiencing extreme highs and lows in mood.
- Persistent fears, worries, and anxieties.
- Withdrawing from social activities and isolating oneself.
- Significant changes in eating or sleeping habits.
- Strong feelings of anger and irritability.
- Having strange thoughts or delusional beliefs.
- Seeing or hearing things that aren't there (hallucinations).
- Difficulty coping with daily tasks and responsibilities.
- Suicidal thoughts or self-harm behaviors.
- Unexplained physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches.
- Substance abuse or addiction.
Symptoms In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:
- Substance abuse or addiction.
- Difficulty coping with problems and daily activities.
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits.
- Excessive complaints of physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches.
- Struggles with managing responsibilities at home and/or school.
- Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism.
- Intense fear or anxiety.
- Frequent outbursts of anger and aggression.
Symptoms In Younger Children:
- Decline in school performance, such as poor grades despite strong efforts.
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits.
- Excessive worry or anxiety, such as refusing to go to bed or school.
- Hyperactivity or difficulty sitting still.
- Persistent nightmares or night terrors.
- Persistent disobedience or aggression, such as frequent tantrums or defiance.
- Difficulty following rules or instructions.
- Frequent mood swings or short temper.
Have Compassion For How You Feel…and How Your Loved One Feels
When a loved one is going through a tough time with their mental health, it can be incredibly difficult to understand and accept their behavior. It's essential to approach the situation with empathy and compassion, recognizing that they are struggling and need support.
Also, remember that your loved one's behavior may be just as distressing for them as it is for you. Take the time to ask questions, listen with an open mind, and offer support.
Build a Social Support Network
When it comes to supporting a loved one with a mental illness, this can be a challenging and emotional journey. However, having a strong support network can make all the difference. This can include friends, family members, and even self-help or support groups.
If you feel that you can't discuss your situation with friends or family members, consider joining a self-help or support group. These groups provide a safe space to connect with other people who are going through similar struggles, and they can offer valuable insights and advice.
Therapy can be a powerful tool for coping with a loved one's mental illness. Not only can it help the individual with the mental illness, but it can also provide support and guidance for other family members.
When searching for a therapist, choose a therapist that you feel comfortable with and who understands your unique situation. You may need to speak to a few professionals before finding the right one.
Take Care Of Yourself
When a loved one is struggling with a mental illness, it can be easy for their needs to become the center of attention in the family. While this is understandable and necessary, it can also lead to feelings of neglect or resentment among other family members. They may feel as if they can't pursue their own interests or priorities.
As a caregiver, it's essential to take care of yourself as well. Scheduling time for yourself is crucial to prevent burnout and maintain your emotional and physical well-being. This can help keep things in perspective, and you'll be more equipped to support your loved one.
The Last Word
When a loved one is dealing with a mental illness, it can be a difficult and emotional journey. You may find yourself questioning the reality of the situation, worrying about the judgments of others, and trying to understand the cause of their condition. These feelings are completely understandable.
You're not alone in this journey, and educating yourself on your loved one's condition is essential. As you learn more, don't be afraid to share what you have learned with others. By breaking the taboo and sharing your story, you can help reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and offer hope and support to other families who may be going through a similar experience.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, it's important to seek help immediately.
You can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center.
If the situation is potentially life-threatening, get immediate emergency assistance by calling 911, which is available 24 hours a day.
And if you or someone you know is suicidal, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
More mental health resources can be found in the Resources area of the Remble app.
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1 National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.
2 American Psychiatric Association. https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm