Despite the prevalence and our increased understanding and acceptance of mental illness in society today, many family members still harbor fears and uncertainty surrounding how to help someone close to them who has a mental illness. Some of these fears, while understandable, are also irrational – that maybe I’ll “catch” what they have, that it’s probably genetic, so I’m going to get it too, that whatever I’ll say to my family member will be the wrong thing.
Understanding with Compassion
These fears for many are grounded in the historical stigma and misinformation surrounding mental disorders. For decades, anybody who was diagnosed with a “nervous condition” was often hospitalized as an inpatient for years. Many were never released, spending most of their lives in hospital wards for the insane. Doctors didn’t really understand why these people were disturbed, only that their families didn’t want to deal with them and their “crazy behaviors” any longer. So they gladly acquiesced to warehousing family members in wards designed for a lifetime of living.
But in the past two decades, researchers and doctors have made great strides in understanding how to administer effective treatments for mental disorders. These treatments, both medication- and psychotherapy-based, allow nearly anyone with a mental disorder to lead a full and rich life. The diagnosis of a mental disorder or condition is no longer a stigmatized sentence to a life in a hospital ward and of being ignored by one’s family.
Yet families often don’t know how to handle a family member with a mental disorder, or one who was once “ill” and is now “better.” They don’t understand what caused the disorder in the first place, and are afraid of coming down with a similar condition over time. It’s not surprising this sentiment is still prevalent. Researchers still have few definitive answers regarding the causes of mental disorders, although there are many competing theories (including brain chemistry, personal development and upbringing, physical brain abnormalities, etc.). However, we still don’t know what causes the majority of mental disorders.
Information, then Action
Families would do well to read and learn all they can about the mental disorder the family member is inflicted with. Websites, such as PsychCentral.com, books, and informational brochures all contain a wealth of useful information that can help a person better understand the symptoms, course, scope and treatments available for a disorder. Knowledge is the key to answering many common questions and putting to rest many common fears. For instance, mental disorders are not virus- or bacteria-based, therefore you can’t “catch” the mental disorder afflicting the family member. While there may indeed be genetic indicators and links, the causal relationships are not well understood for most disorders. In other words, even if your brother or daughter has schizophrenia, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get it too.