Mental illness is one of those subjects that many families don’t talk about. It’s a type of problem that members of other families get. It’s the type of illness that other people around the world experience. However, it’s likely that mental illness can touch your family because one in four individuals will experience some sort of mental illness at some point in their lives. Whether it’s bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, or panic disorder, there’s a good chance that someone in your family may experience mental illness. This article will discuss the signs of a mental illness as well as how to appropriately handle and be supportive of family members who develop a mental health disorder.
Mental Illness Should be a Family Discussion
It’s easy to sweep mental illness under the rug. It’s easy for family members to continue to focus on their own lives and ignore the struggles of cousins, nieces, nephews, or even a sibling. However, if mental illness is discussed openly and freely, then those in the family who are struggling with an illness can feel the freedom to ask for help when they need it. They are more likely to feel the support, compassion and concern of their loved ones around them.
Below are links to videos of celebrities who are beginning to talk openly about the mental illness in their families. They do so in order to help break the stigma of mental illness and encourage a greater conversation among families around the country.
- Glenn Close shares how mental illness affected her sister and nephew. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMdFj4e0Q18
- Demi Lovato discusses her diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder and Eating Disorders https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H72beAG4-PI
- Cher encourages individuals with mental illness to get help. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXRYmVUOD7g
- Famous sports journalist, John Saunders, discusses stigma. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Zuo88K2Gdc
- Senator Gordon Smith talks about losing his son to mental illness. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLnA-ZdKuEY
- Elyn Saks, professor at Gould School of Law at University of Southern California, discusses her battle with schizophrenia and what has helped her manage it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_4O3U5CWis
Teens Can be Vulnerable to Mental Illness
If you are a parent of an adolescent, it’s important to know the signs of mental illness. Because of the tumultuous nature of adolescence and the many changes that teens go through, they can be vulnerable to psychological illness. For instance, teens experience physical, emotional, psychological, and social changes. Because they stand at the threshold between childhood and adulthood, their developing brains can have an effect on their mood, behavior, choices, and thoughts.
However, if parents are afraid of mental illness and uneducated about the symptoms, they may miss the signs that indicate a teen needs professional help. They may unconsciously dismiss indicators that reveal there may be a problem. If parents and caregivers are fearful of admitting that there may be mental illness in their family, they may miss an opportunity to prevent or provide support for their teen.
Although mental illness carries a stigma and although it is not always welcome in families, in order to save a teen who may be struggling with a mental illness, parents should at least be mindful of the following signs:
- Feeling very sad
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Threats of suicide or making plans to end their life
- Frequently getting into fights at school
- Demonstrating out of control behavior that may lead to harm
- Noticeable changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
- Sexual acting out
- Depressed mood
- Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs
- Intense fear of becoming overweight, purging food or restricting eating
- Controlling food intake, using laxatives, or throwing up in an attempt to lose weight
- Persistent nightmares
- Experiencing intense anxieties and fears that get in the way of daily functioning
- Threats of self-harm or harm to others
- Self-injury or self-destructive behavior
- Frequent use of alcohol and/or drugs
- Frequent outbursts of anger, aggression
- Threats to run away
- Opposition to authority, truancy, thefts, or vandalism
- Strange thoughts and feelings; and unusual behaviors
- Mood swings
- Behavior that is out of character, destructive, or debilitating.
- Dropping grades
- Physical symptoms
- An inability to cope or manage experiences
How to Approach the Subject of Mental Illness with your Teen
If mental illness is new to your family or if you suspect mental illness in your teen, you might be uncomfortable about discussing it. You might feel uneasy about bringing it up at all. However, talking about it is the beginning to helping your teen feel supported. Although your teen might at first now want to admit it themselves, they will likely welcome your support. Because the alternative is holding it in and dealing with it in silence.
To avoid this with your teen, here are some phrases you can use to gently talk about mental illness:
- I’ve noticed that you’ve been a bit sad lately. Are you doing okay?
- I want to support you in any way I can, and I’m concerned about you.
- Can you tell me more about how you’re feeling?
- I’m worried about your safety. Are you having any thoughts of harming yourself or someone else?
- I’m concerned about your lack of food intake, and I’m here to support you. Can you tell me more about what’s going on?
- Would you like to talk to a professional?
- I know it’s been hard for you at school. If I were in your shoes I would be angry too. Can you tell me more about what’s going on?
These are suggestions for beginning a conversation with your teen, especially if you suspect symptoms of mental illness. The topic is not an easy one to discuss, particularly with teens. They may not want to be seen by their friends as having something wrong. However, you can reassure your teen that whatever the problem may be, you can address it confidentially. Whether you involve a professional or not, you can both agree to keep the conversation at home, as long as you continue to talk about it for as long as necessary.
At the same time, if you are concerned about your teen’s well being for any reason (whether it’s the use of substances, sexual activity, disordered eating, or signs of mental illness) you may want to involve a mental health professional for more assistance. And in that case as well, your teen’s privacy will be protected. The only way friends and other family members may find out about a mental illness is if your teen discusses it with them.
The point is that mental illness is a serious matter. If you suspect your teen is experiencing symptoms, don’t let them struggle on their own. Talk to them about it, and get professional help if necessary.