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Mental Health: 5 Ways to Help Support a Mentally Ill Sibling

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When my son was diagnosed with Schizophrenia there were two younger children still living at home. His illness necessitated a move to a new town so that he could receive medical treatment which meant that the two younger children were uprooted from their familiar lives to a place we had never lived before. Add to that the trauma of having a chronically ill and unpredictable brother who was now requiring a very large portion of the family’s financial and emotional resources and you have a very difficult situation.

When a child in the family is diagnosed with a mental illness, the siblings of that child are impacted and suffer too. While parents typically focus on the child with the illness, the other children may feel abandoned by their parents, embarrassed, and angry at the ill child.

As the children grow into adulthood and parents age, siblings may have to step in and help with their ill sibling but may hold resentments toward their sibling for what they perceive as a hopeless situation. It is typical for there to be siblings who distance themselves and can’t or won’t help. That leaves the burden on the most sympathetic sibling and this can cause a large burden on their own lives which usually involve work and children of their own. In addition, resentment toward unhelpful siblings may become a problem further fracturing the family. Of course, in a two child family the problem is worse because there is no alternative for help.

The NAMI Family to Family Education classes were authored by Dr. Joyce Burland. Dr. Burland has only one sibling who is mentally ill. Dr. Burland’s life experiences as a sister and as a therapist provided the motivation to develop a way to help improve the lives of those affected by mental illness. The structure of the Family-to-Family class provides valuable information about the illness – but the most important aspect of the class is the association with others who are experiencing what you are. It was during this class that I became aware of what my children were experiencing with their brother.

5 Ways You Can Support a Mentally Ill Sibling

One of my daughter’s offers the following advice to siblings :

  1. Be involved with your mentally ill sibling. Do what you can and stretch yourself, if necessary. A little bit of love and understanding goes a long way.
  2. Hold a family meeting to openly discuss the needs of your sibling and to make plans so that everyone can be involved in helping. Saying that you don’t know how to help is not an excuse for doing nothing. Find a way to share the burden with your other siblings.
  3. Learn as much as you can about your siblings illness – knowledge is power.
  4. Remember that these are chronic illnesses and that your loved one may never improve.
  5. Be positive and hopeful. There is always hope and being positive will be a great help to your sibling.
What can you do to support your sibling today? What can you do to be closer as a family during difficult times?

 Photo courtesy of Flickr.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness or nami.org can help with education and support. NAMI’s Family to Family education classes are a good place for siblings to be able to share their feelings of love and frustration toward their ill sibling.

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