These are valuable but families are also hugely important: a well-functioning family environment helps us to sustain good mental health, and can be a critical component in our recovery and coping if we do become unwell.
Here are some characteristics of families that provide the best support for people with mental health challenges.
1. They understand. Disappointment, embarrassment, distress and resentment might be natural responses to the challenging behaviour and moods of a family member who is mentally unwell, but education about mental health can make tough times much more tolerable. If you understand the underlying reasons, it is so much easier to extend grace and patience. Offence turns into sympathy. This is sometimes called a ‘disability perspective’: a clunky term but it means you see their challenging behaviour as symptoms of a health problem rather than as a moral failure or character flaw. Some maturity is required but even children can often grasp this notion when it is explained to them.
2. They stand firm. A mental health challenge can dominate a family. Parents and partners can become exhausted and children can feel neglected. Wider whānau can be brilliant in stepping in and providing care for the care-givers, ‘filling gaps’ and giving practical support.
3. Boundaries. All healthy relationships have boundaries – we cannot feel safe without them. Sometimes a person with a mental health problem loses their sensitivity around the normal boundaries that exist within family life, and make excessive demands on time and resources, or be intrusive in their behaviour or neglectful of their obligations. Even with a ‘disability perspective’, it is important for families to keep all their members safe with boundaries that are defined and defended in a firm, fair and friendly way.
4. They care. They keep us motivated, to keep working on recovering our health, and on-track with our therapy and medication. And they notice if our health is taking a dive and can get the help we need.
5. They are staunch advocates. Family members are usually our most loyal supporters. A person with mental and emotional problems often has to navigate through financial and legal issues, and deal with multiple agencies and medical professionals: family can be so helpful in keeping us from getting lost and overwhelmed. We all know that sometimes to get the best help we need to persist and keep asking – family can do that for us even when we feel exhausted.
6. The are resilient. Mental unwellness almost guarantees challenges for family life. Sometimes our mental unwellness takes us away from our families for a while; and sometimes families can become wounded. But, just like bodies and minds, families can heal and recover. Relationships can heal.
7. They love and accept. Everyone needs to feel safe, loved and feel that they belong. In that environment, most of us thrive and, if we have been unwell, it gives us a great place to recover.
These blogs are offered with the sincere hope that they will be beneficial to people with mental health challenges, their families and the wider public. However, a big lesson from the history of science is that anyone can be wrong! Therefore, this disclaimer: though written in good faith, the authors and publishers cannot guarantee the accuracy of this content, or its applicability to a particular situation. Any decisions or course of action taken as a consequence of this content must be entirely the reader’s responsibility. In no way should this content be used as a basis to contradict or ignore the advice of a medical or mental health professional.