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People with serious mental illnesses benefit from family support. But providing support for the family member does not mean that the family should provide total care. Many families can maintain better long-term relationships with their relative if they do not permit caregiving to become excessively burdensome. This means that families must seriously consider their own needs and seek out clinics and agencies in the community that can take on many of the caregiving responsibilities. Relatives or friends can be good listeners and provide useful feedback to family members. Self-help groups bring together people with similar problems in a spirit of mutual help. Such a group can provide a kind of understanding that can only come from having walked the same path. Faith organizations can offer support and ease the burden for families with an ill member.

If the family is the main provider of care for the ill relative, the family must find ways to maintain their own wellbeing. They may find that their community offers respite care. Relief may also be sought by placing the patient in a day care program, leaving the patient alone for a while (if this is safe to do), calling in a relative to help, or hiring a companion. Family members who can manage their own stress levels well are more able to sustain a constant level of support for their ill relatives.

Having a person with a mental illness in the family makes it difficult to consider each family member’s unique needs when making decisions about how to allocate time, energy, and financial resources. Regardless of the amount of support that the ill member may want, other members must reserve time and energy for themselves and each other. Parents should be careful to pay attention to the needs of other children in the family. Healthy children do best when they are encouraged to have parallel lives outside the family and to pursue their own interests and activities. It is important that they know they may be asked to help out with their ill sibling but are not responsible for them. Adult children of a mentally ill person may find it extremely difficult to assume the role of guardian when a parent becomes ill. If they assume that role, it is important that they continue to take care of their own needs and do enjoyable things with friends and family.

Family members often experience guilt and wonder things like, “Why did this have to happen to me, to us?” and, “What did I do wrong?” These feelings are natural. But feelings of guilt can rob family members of their authority to set limits for the patient and can lead them to be overly protective and carry too much of the burden. The temptation may be to give all the time and attention to the ill person. This strategy will inevitably backfire. Rather, you must find a way to respect everyone’s needs, including your own. Consider the following questions to help balance time between ill and well family members:

  • How much time can you spend with your ill relative without resenting him or her (for example, two hours a day, one visit a week, one visit a month, one phone call a month)?
  • How much time do you need to spend with your ill relative in order to keep the relationship as good as possible in the long run?
  • How much time do other family members need and want? The fact that they are well makes them no less deserving.
  • How much nurturing do you need, via time spent alone and with well friends and family?
  • How enjoyable and valuable to you and your ill relative is the time you spend together? How do each of you feel after spending time together?
  • Are other well family members showing signs of stress (for example, physical symptoms, disturbances of sleep and eating habits, depression, and so forth)? Consider the price you may be paying for the lack of time and attention.

It is vital to you and the rest of your family that you not sacrifice all of your resources, time, energy, and money for your ill relative.