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What to Do When Your Family Member Has a Mental Illness

Updated on June 15, 2013


When a family member was hospitalized in a psychiatric facility, I was instantly overwhelmed. Unlike a regular hospital, there is no regular access to your family member or their doctors. Indeed, finding out any information at all about your relative’s care--even if that relative is a spouse or a child--can be difficult, if not impossible. Going through such a traumatic time would have been a bit easier with a knowledgeable friend to guide me through the process.

I hope that this hub will serve as a layman’s guide for the family member caring for someone with mental illness.

As you read the following information, please keep in mind first that I am not a mental health professional; I am simply a family member with some experience and quite a bit of research. Too, regarding laws or policies, my own experience is specific to Kansas, and so the policies and laws may be different in your area. With anything this important, above all do your own research, take my advice with a grain of salt, and consult a professional who is familiar with your area and your particular family situation.

Woman reading
Woman reading | Source

Learning about the Illness

Perhaps the most important and first thing to do is learn all about your family member’s illness. By doing this, you will be able to gain valuable information during a time when they are stable. This will allow you to better participate in their treatment as well as be able to identify warning signs that they may be in danger.

The following are some questions to consider when you begin researching your relative’s particular illness:

  • What is their specific diagnosis? For example, there is more than one type of bipolar disorder, and so knowing the exact diagnosis will allow you to gather information that is valuable for you and your family member. Don’t be afraid to question your relative’s doctor and ask for them to show you the diagnosis in the DSM, which is their guide for any psychiatric diagnosis.

  • What are the common symptoms of this illness? Knowing the symptoms of the illness will allow you to better identify when your family member may be unstable or perhaps simply need their medication adjusted.

  • What medication have they been prescribed, and what are the possible side effects of this medicine? Some medications, especially anti-psychotics, can have serious side effects. Knowing these potential side effects and their early warning signs will allow you to better help your family member stay healthy physically and mentally.

  • How have others dealt with this illness? Reading the works of others who have dealt with this illness may provide you with additional information not found in psychiatric journals. These are people who live with the illness every day, and so their writing may give you an idea of the difficulties that your family member may encounter.

As you begin your research, you may be intimidated by the lingo of psychiatric writing. Wading through the different terms can be overwhelming. Luckily there are many different resources available for the layman. These resources--whether book, article, video, or forum--avoid the technicalities of psychiatric treatment while giving you the information that you need.

As you begin to read, though, be sure and select reputable resources, such as those written by doctors or other healthcare professionals, so that you avoid incorrect or dangerous advice. For example, two very good authors who write about bipolar disorder are Julie Fast and Kay Redfield Jamison; both write at a level that is accessible to most people and yet have an excellent background in personal experience and research. If you are unsure as to how to begin your reading, a healthcare provider may be able to give you some suggestions.

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Gathering Local Resources

Learning about local resources is also a positive step in properly caring for your relative and yourself. These could include support groups as well as emergency services. Gathering this information ahead of time will only benefit you and your family.

Here are some things to consider as you look for resources specific to your area:

  • Support groups. These can be valuable for both your family member and yourself. Finding other people who understand your situation will give you the support that you need.

  • Governmental services. Most local governments have psychiatric and social services available for those who cannot afford treatment or medication. Even if you do have insurance, it is often a good idea to get started with these services so that if your family member loses their job then they will still be able to receive their treatment.

  • Mental health organizations and advocacy groups. Becoming familiar with these groups and local issues will provide you with information that may be necessary in helping your relative.

  • Emergency services. What happens if your family member becomes unstable? Is there a local hotline? Do you call the police? Creating a plan ahead of time will give you some peace of mind and somewhat alleviate your stress during a difficult time.


Dealing with the Legalities

Although legal issues can be just as confusing--or possibly even more so--than psychiatric lingo, it is necessary to get all of this in writing before your family member must be hospitalized. One thing that is unique to psychiatric hospitals--at least this is true for those in Kansas--is that you will be denied access (phone calls, visits, treatment information, etc) to your family member without the necessary paperwork. By talking with a lawyer ahead of time, you will save yourself a lot of trouble during your relative’s hospitalization.

Here are some things to consider before and during a psychiatric hospitalization:

  • Make sure that your relative signs a consent to release information to you through their regular doctor. This will allow their doctor to provide you with updates during good times as well as during a hospitalization. It is also a good idea for you to call them during a hospitalization to confirm that they are communicating with the doctors at the hospital.

  • If you are the spouse of a psychiatric patient or the parent of an adult child with mental illness, then consider getting a power of attorney and medical power of attorney. This should provide you with the legal authority to talk with your relative and their doctor during the hospitalization.

  • From my own personal experience, psychiatric hospitals are often overwhelmed and understaffed. Don’t assume that they will communicate with your relative’s regular doctor. Insist upon it. Also, request continual updates as to their treatment and condition.

  • Some mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, can mean that your relative may spend money excessively during a period of instability. This can be especially dangerous for your financial outlook. Talk with your family member and your financial planners ahead of time so that you can all come up with a plan to protect your family from insolvency.

  • Mental illness can also come with legal issues. Be prepared for this and the possibility that you might have to hire an attorney to defend your family member. Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of local mental illness experts and organizations to provide your attorney with information about their illness as your attorney will most likely not have dealt with a similar issue in the past. Local law enforcement and court systems are often unprepared to deal with someone with a severe mental illness.

Couple on park bench
Couple on park bench | Source

Summary of the Top Points to Consider

Quick Tips for Dealing with a Family Member with Mental Illness:

  • Get support for both them and yourself.

  • Get information on your relative’s illness.

  • Gather information on local resources.

  • Create a plan for dealing with an emergency.

  • Set up the legal paperwork necessary for your area.


I hope that this will give you a plan of action if you love someone with a psychiatric disorder. By getting prepared ahead of time, you will only serve your relative as well as your entire family.

As I said above, I am simply a concerned family member and not a mental health or legal professional.

I hope that this will also allow you some comfort in that you’re not alone in your struggles. Get informed and get prepared, and you will be on your way to caring for your family member.


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    • Krista Schnee profile imageAUTHOR

      Krista Schnee 

      6 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Hi, Kristyleann,

      Your comments and further reinforcement of the ideas in the article are very true and wise. And thank you for the kind words.

    • kristyleann profile image

      Kristy LeAnn 

      6 years ago from Princeton, WV

      These are great tips. I have bipolar 2 disorder and a lot of people in my family have various mental illnesses as well. I'm basically just reinforcing what you've already said but education is so important for both family and friends and the person with the illness. Learn everything you possibly can. If it gets overwhelming take a break for a few days and get back into it. Also sign up for support groups or online forums where patients discuss things. If you are a family member and you have questions feel free to ask them...they won't get offended, I promise.

      Also, if your family member stops taking medication (especially if they haven't been on it long) please please please don't get mad at them. It's true that in some cases (like bipolar disorder) the person may kind of miss certain things about the illness (like mania) and quit taking them but even that is part of the illness. But *most* of the time it's because the side effects are intolerable and in some cases (this tends to be especially true with antipsychotics) they can be permanent even after you stop them. I'm not anti medication but it's all about finding the ones that will work for you.

      Also, research non medication ways to manage the illness. They can help tremendously along with taking medication.

      Sorry for such a long comment lol...I'm just always happy to see articles about mental illness because people need to know and understand it better. Thanks so much for writing this. :)

    • Krista Schnee profile imageAUTHOR

      Krista Schnee 

      6 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Hi, everyone,

      Thanks so much for the kind comments. All of this information came from personal experience, and I hope it will help others who are going through something similar. I appreciate everyone's support!

    • Krista Schnee profile imageAUTHOR

      Krista Schnee 

      6 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      @Paul Edmondson: Did I do something wrong in this hub? I'm not sure I understand the comment.

    • rose-the planner profile image

      rose-the planner 

      6 years ago from Toronto, Ontario-Canada

      A brilliant and insightful article with valuable tips on such a serious issue! Well done! Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 

      6 years ago from USA

      I've been through this whole mess. We went through some extra hard times, but the good news is that once a doctor figures out the right medication, the person will do much better.

    • Paul Edmondson profile image

      Paul Edmondson 

      6 years ago from Burlingame, CA

      JohnMu from google told me that google will sometimes show a URL in the results on a previous URL that was redirected (301) to a new URL. This behavior is not a bug according to them. As far as promotion goes, I think Hubs benefit regardless of the URL.

    • fpherj48 profile image


      6 years ago from UpstateWestern,New York

      Excellent, insightful information. You are to be applauded for the effort you put forth, to learn all that you could. You have clearly done a service to your readers who may be going through a difficult time. Family support is imperative, in terms of any and all illness. Kudos to you Krista......Voted UP...U I ++

    • CarlySullens profile image

      Carly Sullens 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, Missouri

      Krista, I am a mental health professional and your hub is excellent! I appreciate all your honest points. It is hard on the families and think the mental health profession can do better to integrate the families with treatment, information and be more understanding. Voted up and shared!

    • Krista Schnee profile imageAUTHOR

      Krista Schnee 

      6 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Hi, BkCreative,

      You are very right in regards to the information on mental illness as well as dealing with it practically. And yes, you are in a way responsible for your family member's health and safety. Thank you for your kind words.

    • BkCreative profile image


      6 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Just like mental illness itself - so little information like this is available when we need it. I don't know what I would do if I found a family member had a mental illness. Being so close you may have to wind up bearing responsibility for a family member's well being. Thanks so much for a very timely article.

    • Krista Schnee profile imageAUTHOR

      Krista Schnee 

      6 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Hi, Kathleen,

      Thank you for the kind words. I hope that my experiences do help someone.



    • profile image

      Kathleen Kerswig 

      6 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this important Hub with us. I am in school to get my Master's in Mental Health Counseling and I also have some relatives who have a mental health diagnosis. Your suggestions, if followed, can be very helpful to those struggling to make sense of what is happening. It is always importnat to remember to take care of yourself too. If you take care of yourself, you will be able to take better care of the person with the diagnosis. Good job!


    • Krista Schnee profile imageAUTHOR

      Krista Schnee 

      6 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      Hi, Denise,

      Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate your comments.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      6 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      These are excellent tips. I have been in a mental health unit myself, and have had family members there as well. It is a difficult experience and there are many things to take in to consideration. You have covered them nicely here in this hub. I hope that things get better for you and your loved one in treatment.


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