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Here's to You: First steps for families coping with mental illness

When families first learn of mental illness in the family, they often feel lost about what to do for the family member, or where to find information to help.

They may deny there is anything permanent occurring: "She'll get over this in a few months, and then she can get back to work again."

While some people do have a temporary condition, for many in our community it is a long-term illness that must be managed over time.

Families are affected as much, and sometimes more, than the person with mental illness. They may feel guilt: "Is it my fault? Am I bad mother?"

They may feel anger: "Why can't he just get his act together and act like other people!"

They may feel shame: "I can't believe my cousin acted that way!"

They may feel the need to control the loved one's behaviors: "You didn't take your medications today. You're supposed to take them!"

Fortunately, these feelings often do lead to seeking help. Families often start by researching the illness. "I looked on-line. The NAMI website has a lot of information. I'm always looking for more information. I go to the library. I look in the phone book in the yellow pages under social services or mental health."

Families may get information through the emergency room. "A psychologist came to the emergency room and told us about the Community Behavioral Health Hospital. And we eventually got our child set up for regular visits with a psychiatrist."

Families may obtain information from the doctor's office. "I asked the nurse where I could find resources. She was a wonderful person, and knew what was available in the community." "I asked my doctor what to do, and he referred us to a psychologist."

Families may contact social services or other mental health providers. "There is a case manager for our sister. She found housing for our sister and helped her get health care coverage." "Our adult child was connected up with an ARMHS (Adult Rehabilitation Mental Health Services) worker. She sees the ARMHS worker weekly and is learning to pay bills. The ARMHS worker has been helpful with advice."

Families may get information from others going through the same situation. "I talked to my brother-in-law. His uncle has bipolar disorder, so he can relate." "I go to a family support group. Everyone there has someone in their lives with a mental illness. I feel understood."

There are many routes families use to get information about services for mental illness, but it may take some time to find the services that work best for your situation. The person with the illness may not want to go to a service chosen by a family member. There may be transportation issues, or insurance problems.

Be patient with yourself and your loved one. Help is on the way.

Robin Wold, MSW, LSW, CPRP, is Hope House director.