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How Mental Illness Affects the Family

Updated on August 29, 2012

The ways mental illness affects family members

The human mind and behavior of people has fascinated me from the time I was a young teen. I wanted to see a psychiatrist then, just to ask questions and validate that I wasn’t crazy. Growing up in my chaotic home there were times when I wondered if I was. Like many people experiencing the 1950’s and ‘60’s I knew there were changes afoot and I was both excited and frightened of what was looming ahead. It is no wonder then, that my career path led me to work in the mental health field.

When mental illness enters the lives of families it is devastating and costly. Years of therapy and hospitalization, along with medication, may help to stabilize a person however, it is financially draining. If that person is unemployed or does not have adequate insurance treatment may falter. Cut backs in the economy reflect a steady rise in mental illness.

Mental illness is also an emotional drain. Witnessing the de-compensation in the stability of a loved one creates apprehension for those offering support. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is a worthy organization that offers support for families and friends affected by a mentally ill person, as well as educating the public and bringing mental illness into the light.

Diagnosing a mental illness

Very simply, every person who meets with a psychiatrist or mental health professional is given a primary diagnosis that is classified as ‘Axis I’. Diagnostic tools vary, however, the DSM-IV, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health, published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the book which care providers refer to in order to best treat the patient’s symptoms. Gambling, for example, was not part of the original DSM; however, it is included in the DSM-IV.

Classifications can range from adjustment disorders to personality disorders and from mood disorders to psychosis. It is updated periodically and the updates are indicated by the number following the title; hence, we are now in the 4th revision. Revisions occur because our culture has changed from when the DSM was initially written, and the current copy has included new pathologies that were not seen before.

Perhaps it is from my own struggle with understanding why people act the way they do, or the fascination of why one person in a family grows up mentally healthy, while another family member succumbs to mental illness, that touches me when I am working with psychiatric patients. It is a disabling disease that I know about first hand.

Taking care of the Mentally Ill

My nephew is an older teen that has had more than his share of hard knocks coming into this world. His start began as a premature baby who suffered seizures at birth; hence, he has some neurological damage. Even greater is that he was born to two mentally unhealthy people.

His father, my youngest brother, is an untreated and undiagnosed paranoid, delusional man who believes he was kidnapped by aliens when he was a young man. He will point to a scar on his forehead as proof that he has a chip implanted in his brain. In addition to this, he will become violent when things don’t go his way.

His mother is severely afflicted with cerebral palsy. She is wheelchair bound, has a voice machine that she manipulates the keys to ‘talk’ for her with her contorted hands and she has an eighth grade education. She also suffers from reality issues.

He is currently seeing a psychiatrist, who I have been dissatisfied with from the beginning. Living in a rural area does not afford one the luxury of many places to choose from. But, when a parent wants the best for her child there are sacrifices that will be made. My search for a new clinic has paid off and we will meet his new doctor soon.

Because his father has delusions I am vigilant with any signs that J may show. I have been suspicious on some occasions and am keeping a record of both my gut feelings and what I observe. He has a certain look that comes over him when he is ‘checking out’. Although he denies this I have witnessed the affect as well as the tone of his voice, the movements of his body-it is bizarre; as if he is gone somewhere else and a soulless entity has taken over his body.

Other times he rages, as his father does, hitting walls, picking up items to throw across the room, threatening to stab and kill. It is disconcerting to say the least. In the end, after it is all over, he is submissive-a meek, sad ‘boy’.

I have the advantage of knowing him as a little boy; his family history; his father as a young boy growing up in the same household; his grandparents and their parenting style, which is influential; and the family dynamics that he was born into. I also have the advantage of understanding, from an outside perspective, of what he is going through from my many years of working with psychiatric patients.

His advantage is that I love and care about him, so I stick it out and advocate for him. But, even I have my limits, and when he rages at me in an abusive way I have to maintain firm boundaries and consequences; and try not to take it personally. Sometimes, that is difficult to do.

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Signs of Mental Illness and what to do

It is important, if there is a history of mental illness in the family, to be aware that you or your children are at a higher risk for mental illness. It does not mean that it will happen, but that the possibilities, due to mental vulnerability, is greater.

If depression runs in your family be aware of your own moods and watch if your child becomes moody, withdrawn or complaining. Children can feel suicidal, too, and they are capable of finding ingenious ways to end their lives if their condition goes on treated. A loss of interest in normal activities, tearfulness and a sense of hopeless or helplessness are all signs of depression. The rage among teens now is to cut. Not a new phenomenon, technical tools like the internet and cell phones has accelerated the support for this activity. My nephew is a cutter. When his emotions get the best of him he will secret himself away and superficially slice his skin in areas that are covered-upper thighs, belly, etc. Then, he will write about how it relieves his pain. I am trying to teach him alternatives, but I cannot do the work for him.

Mood Disorders, such as bipolar, or manic-depression, as well as personality orders, (antisocial p.d. or borderline p.d.), can be debilitating if not addressed. These diagnoses are showing up in greater numbers in the teen population, especially in homes where the environment is stressful and there is a poor example of good coping skills. Indicators may be a labile mood, sexual promiscuity, extravagant makeup or spending sprees, (manic); to feeling depressed and suicidal, like there is nothing to live for-and living becomes a burden.

Psychosis is a break from reality. A first schizophrenic break will often occur as a young adult goes away to college. A predisposition with this disease may be stressed to the max with the change of routine that a college teen faces-adjusting to new surroundings, being away from the familiar home environment, the tension of school pressure, and a number of other factors. Usually parents will report that their child’s ‘weird’ behavior is drug induced, not wanting to face the disheartening news that their child is mentally ill.

Observe for changes from the norm and differences comparatively with other people or teens/children your child’s age. A simple checklist would be to engage in conversation.

1. Is the conversation an easy one, or is the person more irritable with being questioned, or skewing a normal conversation into something it isn’t?

2. Does the person claim to be receiving messages from the television or radio-or God?

3. Does the person reference wanting to kill themselves or harm others?

4. Is the person withdrawn to herself or her room?

5. Do you hear yourself or observe your loved one talking to someone who is not there?


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    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Hi Fennelseed-Mental Illness is such a taboo subject in many homes and cultures. I have been fascinated with it for decades. I also feel that people, either for themselves or loved ones, stay in denial--hence the sense that they wait until it is too late.

      First, if one is mentally ill than early intervention improves the prognosis. However, the earlier one has a 'break' from mental health the worse the prognosis if it is a psychotic break. I know it seems conflictual and contradictory, but the fact that a younger person has an earlier break makes them more vulnerable for continued breaks. It is an extremely rare young teen or adult who decides to follow the recommendations to the letter and thus save themselves from further hospitalizations.

      Does a person suffering psychosis ever recover-yes, in the sense that a person with a broken limb will recover--it is part of their history and thus it is not a 'perfect' fit any longer. But, there are other reasons that one might have a psychotic break and be able to recover, such as a break b/c of drugs or even a medication reaction.

      Mental illnes can be 'relieved' if not 'cured'. Again, the vulnerability is always going to be there. Sometimes depression occurs because of a situation and other times it is a family genetic disposition, as is alcoholism, or other addictive personality traits; or even a genetic component for schizophrenia.

      The best way to 'prevent' mental illness is to PROMOTE mental health. That is a trick onto itself. If an infant is born into a family where a parent is schizophrenic or paranoid or narcissistic, they are already 'set up' in an unhealthy environment. Now, the child may have other family members who are sensible, healthy role models and 'escape' the m.i. effects. (See HappyBoomerNurse's comments above), and it is helpful that a person learns good coping skills for the disappointments in life...but, again, the predisposition is greater in that family.

      Thanks for asking such great questions, Fennelseed. This conversation actually has given me a path to a future website, so I am very grateful to you for your inquisitiveness. God Bless.

    • Fennelseed profile image

      Annie Fenn 

      9 years ago from Australia

      I so wish this information was available more readily. I think it is often the case that people only start looking for answers when it is too late. Does a person suffering psychosis, ever recover? Is mental illness curable, once it has a hold? If there is a genetic predisposition, is it preventable? Sorry, so many questions. Your hub is easy to read and gives insight to an illness that people don't want to talk about.

      Thank you for this valuable information, Denise.

    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Wow! What a bittersweet memory of your brother and niece. Take care and stay strong. :)

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      9 years ago from South Carolina

      A good psychiatrist can make all the difference. So glad your nephew is doing better.

      Yes, I was lucky that my mother advocated for me and did what needed to be done to protect me.

      My brother died from cirrhosis of the liver at age 45 due to alcoholism. The disease took his health, his family, his dignity. But through the grace of God he was reunited with his 18 year old daughter during the last 3 days of his life and died in peace as she held his hand and stroked his brow.

    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Hi Gail-yes, we do have much in common. I too suffer from depression at various times in my life and although my mother was not bipolar she suffered from alcoholism. I'm sorry to hear that you had such an awful experience with your cousin--it is very frightening. Thank goodness your mother advocated for you. Thanks for sharing your experience here and commenting.

      I'm happy to report that I have found a new psychiatrist for my nephew and have been very pleased thus far. He is in far better control now, less rageful and better to regain his composure.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      9 years ago from South Carolina

      Don't know how I missed this hub, Denise, but I'm glad I read it today. I knew you were raising your nephew, but didn't know why. After reading this hub I see another reason why I've connected with you so strongly, as I too, grew up in a dysfunctional chaotic home, and always had a strong interest in psychiatry and in learning why people acted as they did. My mother is bipolar and her mental health has deteriorated as she got older. She's 80 now and lives in an assisted living facility but every few months she winds up going back to a geriatric behavioral unit for medication adjustments as she has episodes of psychosis and paranoia. Fortunately, she has a kind, compassionate psychiatrist and the staff at her assisted living facility are very astute at monitoring her behavior and sending her for treatment as needed.

      When I was a teenager my cousin, who had recently been in a mental hospital with a psychotic break and paranoia, came to live with us for awhile. It was a horrible experience for me because my cousin made specific verbal threats on my life, telling my sister that she was going to stab me when I came home from school. Fortunately my sister shared that info with my mother who called her own psychiatrist who advised her that the threat was to be taken seriously and that she had to get my niece out of the house asap. I could go on but I'm sure you get the picture.

      I have a history of depression, but fortunately responded well to psychotherapy and for many years now, I've practiced self-care habits such as meditation, walking, exercising and trying to eat a good diet. I am immensely blessed that these measures have worked so well. I also have a good support system in place, but haven't needed to use it.

      Thanks for sharing this useful hub and I commend you for the commitment you've made to helping your nephew. Voted up, useful, beautiful and awesome!

    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      crystolite- I appreciate you reading this. It is so difficult for people to have this affliction-no matter where you are from. But, it is even harder in some countries than others. Thank you for reading.

    • crystolite profile image


      9 years ago from Houston TX

      Denise, this hub is really touching. People are always afraid of what they don't understand because in some parts in Nigeria, some families that has a history of mental illness are regarded to be cursed. These people are degraded and are seen as outcast. This really bothers me because these are normal human beings that happen to have a mental illness.

      Great hub, cheers and voted up.

    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      I remember that woman, Danette. I met her once during a visit with you. Sad when it is unstable. Yes, most manic - depressive's that I've worked with were highly intelligent. Thanks for your feedback and the encouragement with J. You are always so supportive.

    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 

      9 years ago from Illinois

      Knowing people with mental illness is definitely a challenge. I had a friend in MS who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I could always tell which state she was in. If she was depressed, she could barely function and get out of bed. If she was in her manic state, her makeup was garish and she went on spending sprees. Either way, her children suffered from neglect. But she was (and is) absolutely brilliant with a keen intelligence and a great writer.

      Great hub, voted up. (and yes, you are the perfect person to be raising this kid).

    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks Eiddwen, for your comments. Have a blessed week.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      9 years ago from Wales

      Much food for thought in this brilliantly presented and written hub Denise.

      Take care


    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Hello Dim, thank you. I appreciate your comments.

      Kathi-thank you. Yes, keeping my fingers crossed and my 'mean mom' hat on while I guide, along with a large dose of understanding. Teen boys? Wow, I only have experience raising girls! Whole lot of differences and he towers over me, LOL Thanks for commenting.

    • Fossillady profile image


      9 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      Good article Denise, I wasn't aware this was your area, or had forgotten! You are compassionate for being so patient with your nephew. Thanks to you hopefully he can lead a fulfilled life. Just get him through those teens

    • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

      Dim Flaxenwick 

      9 years ago from Great Britain

      Thia was a wonderful hub. Written with all the sensitivity that is truly needed when dealing with any kind of mental illness. Thank you and well done

    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks Cara, for the encouragement and listening ear that I bend at times. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • cardelean profile image


      9 years ago from Michigan

      Very touching hub. Well done and yes you are the best person for this life changing responsibility, and you are doing a phenomenal job of it. Thanks for all of your hard work.

    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks for reading, Vinodkpillai.

    • Vinodkpillai profile image


      9 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Useful and touching!! Thanks for sharing, Denise

    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Good morning Ashantina. Thanks for your comments-I appreciate them. You're right-very challenging. But, I also know, as you've stated, that I am probably the best person in my family to handle his special needs. That said, I've committed myself and feel supported in ways that are beyond this one person's ability, but by the Grace of God. So...thanks.

    • Ashantina profile image


      9 years ago

      You truly are an angel Denise. Its very challenging when touched by mental illness in the family. All one can do is provide support and love as you do so with your nephew. You are very well equipped to deal with this mentally, emotionally and spiritually and I also commend you.

      Thank you for sharing, God Bless.

    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Hi Viryabo-thank you for your insightful comments about this subject. It is sad to be struck by any illness, but mental illness seems especially difficult.

    • viryabo profile image


      9 years ago

      I have always been utterly upset when i see signs of mental illness in people, especially young ones. The closest i've been to a patient was my neighbour. He was taking his final exams in university (studied mathematics), and a couple of days to the end of the exams, he was struck.

      Because i was young then, i would blame God for allowing such to happen to people, being detached from reality, either temporarily or permanently, sometimes violent, or subdued.

      As i grew older, i began to understand that many times, certain environmental factors contribute to the illness and that therapy is available today, that was not available decades ago.

      I commend you for taking the responsibility of caring for your nephew. Working in your field must be tough work, but from your great hub, i feel your passion on the subject and profession.

      Thanks for sharing this Denise. I've also learnt a number of things from this great hub. Rated Up!


    • Denise Handlon profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise Handlon 

      9 years ago from North Carolina

      Wow, Thanks Marie, I will check out his book. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • VioletSun profile image


      9 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

      Denise, I also am fascinated by the mind and felt compassion for your nephew. Have you read Dr. Daniel Amen's books? He has a clinic in California and offers I believe free treatment to qualified lower income patients as his fees are very high. He gives his patients scans of the brain, and with the information gathered from the scans, he then selects the appropiate medication and therapy to heal the part of the brain that is not functioning well. I found it fascinating to see his before and after brain scans, how unhealthy the first photos looked and how much better the brain looked after treatment, and how the patient's behavior changed for the better.

      Voted up!


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