Mental illnesses cause stress, upheaval for entire families

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on mental health that will appear on the Saturday-Sunday Life section covers in May.

Although mental health problems are extremely common, the initial diagnosis of a mental health condition in a family member can be a very traumatic one for the entire family unit.

“Initial diagnosis can be a time of upheaval and stress in the family,” said Mark DeRubeis, who is a licensed professional counselor in Altoona. “Initial diagnosis can be overwhelming for the family members. They often have many thoughts and questions. (They may wonder if the diagnosed) mental illness is permanent, or how long it will take to resolve.

“They may wonder if the illness will ever be remediated or successfully managed, or what they should now expect of their (affected) loved one,” DeRubeis added. “They may wonder if they need to adjust their dreams and hopes (for the ill family member), and they may wonder what they need to do in order to help.”

May is national Mental Health Month, and for the sixth consecutive year, the Mirror will be running a weekly series on mental health. In this month’s four-part series, the enormous effect of mental illness on the family unit will be examined.

Today’s first column will focus on mental illness and how it affects the entire family dynamic. The May 8-9 weekend edition column will take a look at the very significant role that genetics and biology play in mental health issues. The May 15-16 column will take a look at how a child’s illness affects the family, and the final column, which will run May 22-23, will focus on the importance of a parent getting proper treatment for a mental health issue.

Although medical research has shown that mental illnesses — which can drastically impact a person’s mood, thinking and/or behavior — are medical illnesses that are caused by biochemical imbalances in the brain, social stigma toward mental health conditions unfortunately still exists today, and may sadly prevent some families from getting prompt and proper treatment.

“There probably isn’t a family in the world that hasn’t been impacted in some way by either a mental health issue or a substance abuse issue,” said Denis Navarro, retired outpatient services supervisor and clinical specialist at the UPMC Altoona Behavioral Health Services Department. “The weird thing about stigma is that nobody wants to talk about it, but every family has some kind of mental health issue — maybe not in the immediate family, but with an aunt, uncle, or relative somewhere. It is very common.”

Yet blame, anger, hostility, denial, and anxiety often present themselves as toxic components when mental illness strikes a family.

“Blame can sometimes be misattributed during this period,” DeRubeis said. “Intimacy in the spousal relationship, as well as emotional closeness of other family relationships, can be adversely impacted.”

In some families, family members can become unfairly hostile toward the ill person.

“If somebody has a diagnosis of depression, some family members may tell them to tough it out, or that they don’t need medication, or that they’re weak,” Navarro said. “Sometimes, family members may get angry with the (ill) person, and tell the person that the person caused the illness himself or herself — which is totally unfounded.”

It is essential that an ill person get the proper diagnosis and treatment as quickly as possible, Navarro said, because some severe mental health conditions can lead to self-injury, suicide, or a psychotic break with reality, and as such, they constitute medical emergencies that need to be addressed as swiftly as heart attacks or strokes.

Referral to a psychiatrist — a licensed medical doctor who is trained in the treatment of mental illnesses — is necessary for severe conditions that often require medication.

Families with a member who has been diagnosed with a mental health condition can best help the ill person by educating themselves on the nature, course and prognosis of the illness, and how to keep expectations realistic.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has a branch in just about every county in the state. The mission of NAMI is to provide support and education to families and individuals affected by mental health conditions.

The phone number for the Blair County NAMI helpline is 814-942-4779.

The Blair County NAMI organization also provides a family-to-family program that is specifically designed to help families that are impacted by mental illness.

“(Getting education about) the illness and resources available (is important for families),” DeRubeis said. “(So is) seeking out existing support groups. It helps greatly to know that you are not alone.”

Next week: Examining the role of genetics and biology in mental health.


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