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Mental Illness and Families

By Tara Clark, Director of Marketing and Communications
Featuring Psychotherapists Dafna Berman, L.C.S.W., M.S.W., and
Darcy McDaniel, L.C.S.W.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (2012), mental illness impacts the lives of at least one in four adults and one in 10 children. That adds up to about 60 million Americans…plus their families.

“Severe and persistent mental illness can potentially be difficult on the entire family. It’s a significant burden in part due to the stigma associated with mental illness. It’s also very isolating and never ending. As parents, there are all kinds of things we look forward to, like our children growing up, getting married and having children of their own. However, some individuals living with severe and persistent mental illness are unable to reach these significant milestones. This reality is painful to everyone involved,” said Jewish Family Services’ Psychotherapist, Dafna Berman, L.C.S.W.

Darcy McDaniel, L.C.S.W., JFS Psychotherapist, agreed, “There can be a huge grief element for families because they believe their family member is not going to live up to their potential. A person with a major mental illness may have to go on Social Security Disability Income because they can’t work anymore. And if they don’t have a family of their own, they may become dependent on their parents, siblings or other family members.”

This particular time of the year can be intensely difficult, as some individuals living with severe and persistent mental illness may feel intimidated by big holiday gatherings. A major stressor for their families is how to include this family member. McDaniel recommends being sensitive to his or her needs. “If you know that being part of a big group is overwhelming to that individual, make other accommodations, such as doing something with them separately or just having immediate family…people who are familiar and at ease with them. Allow them to voice what is and is not comfortable for them,” said McDaniel.

McDaniel and Berman agree that most people who have a family member with a mental illness need some kind of support for themselves as well. “To be able to say, ‘I have a sibling or child with severe and persistent mental illness’ is a big step in reaching out for emotional support,” said Berman. “Usually, when people start coming forward, it’s like a ripple effect. Then, many people feel more comfortable about disclosure.”

One available resource is Supported Journeys, a quarterly support group at JFS for families and friends of people whose lives are challenged by severe and persistent mental illness. The group, led by Berman, started 25 years ago and is open to ALL people—Jewish and non-Jewish—in the community. Berman said her primary role is to listen, because it’s the family members who need to be heard and validated.

“The Supported Journeys support group works because it’s [having a family member with a mental illness] such a heavy emotional burden to deal with on your own. People in our group feel comfortable voicing their feelings that they find difficult sharing with anyone else. It can at times feel draining and hopeless. Unlike the death of a loved one, where you go through a process of mourning, potentially reaching a certain level of closure, there is no closure. It’s as if you’re watching your loved one die,” explains Berman.

Others, who are not at ease in a group setting, can choose to meet with a therapist one-on-one. “Often times, we see a family member of a person with mental illness for individual counseling on grief and loss, but we also help them set boundaries: ‘What should I do and not do for my family member anymore? How do I handle it when they are in crisis?’ We talk about how to maintain those boundaries,” said McDaniel.

There are other resources available to ease the burden on family members, especially when the person with the mental illness has a crisis. “You don’t need to deal with it alone. A family can turn to care managers and psychiatrists when the family member has a crisis. A serious mental illness needs a whole team of people versus just one parent, spouse, sibling, or child trying to do it all on their own,” said McDaniel.

Family members can also find themselves in over their heads when they step in to help their loved one manage his or her money. “Parents sometimes take on too much responsibility and try to be the payee. They get burnt out, and it creates a lot of conflict between them and the family member. It can be a full-time job. However, when the person with the mental illness works with our agency as the payee, rules and parameters are put in place. The client has a set amount of money to spend; and, as we are closed on weekends, they can’t take out money on Saturdays and Sundays, which is usually a new experience for the client,” said McDaniel.

McDaniel said it’s important for everyone to know that just because a person has a mental illness, it doesn’t mean that they can’t function in society. “When people think of mental illness, they think about the worst-case scenario: a homeless person on the street. And, that is scary. We don’t think about the people who are going to their jobs or volunteering every day…or the person living right next door. We live in a society where we feel if you work harder, you can pull yourself up. Mental illness doesn’t work that way. It’s a game changer. It’s not that a person with mental illness is lazy or inefficient, it’s just that they have different kinds of struggles,” said McDaniel. “Even though they have different struggles, there is a commonality that is true for everyone. We all want safety, security, and a need to be loved.”