Fractured spirits—Mental Illness presents challenges to any family

When someone breaks a leg, people will rally to sign or draw on the cast. But do we do the same when it comes to fractured spirits?

Support for mental illnessWhen someone breaks a leg, people will rally to sign or draw on the cast. But do we do the same when it comes to fractured spirits? Mental illness comes in many guises, and often takes those who suffer from it hostage. It can strip people of their dreams and autonomy, and is still a taboo subject linked to many preconceived ideas. Affected individuals will no doubt want to regain control of their lives, but what about the impact on friends and family? The fragile mental health of an individual can take loved ones by surprise.

A family crisis brought on by a mental illness can be an enormous challengethat leaves us with few options. What to do when someone you love becomes unstable, unpredictable, or starts to act in bizarre and unrecognizable ways? Such illness can test our resolve and isolate our family. It affects our routines, our work, our relationships and our downtime. Having to deal daily with this suffering can lead to a feeling of powerlessness. Families can then experience uncertainty, despair and frustration towards a society that promises to come to the aid of those who suffer. Without the necessary information needed to demistify mental illness, families can feel anxious, with little faith in proposed roles or treatments. How should we process what is happening? Blame, guilt and tension often result from a lack of resources and information regarding a loved one who can seem like a newfound stranger in our midst.

Those intervening in situations related to mental health must always involve the family, for the benefit of the patient and the support systems at their disposal. Above all, we must create an atmosphere of openness, acceptance and hope. We must guide, inform and help families as they deal with their distress and attempt to find solutions. We must acknowledge their feelings of powerlessness, their need for support, and the space required when dealing with a relative affected by mental health issues. Community resources and support groups provide daily help for our families. These services include volunteers, support circles and groups that specialize in problems related to mental health. L’Association des parents et amis de la personne atteinte de maladie mentale and AMI Québec are two organizations that provide indispensable support to families and individuals affected by mental illness.

Local CLSCs can also provide information about psychosocial resources available in your region. Information, support, space and, at times, family therapy all play a part in the case of an intervention. Learning to identify one’s limitations and needs, as a family member, is essential in order to help a loved one. Because in the end, when a person’s spirits are fractured, the consequences are felt by the entire family. Pierre Bleau, M.D., FRCPC, DFAPA is an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University, and medical director at the MUHC Anxiety Program.