When Mom or Dad Has a Mental Illness
Last week I wrote about what to do when your child has a mental illness. A friend on social media asked, “What about when you’re the child, and your parent has a mental illness?” Estimates show that one in four people suffer from mental illness, not including diseases of neurologic decline like Alzheimer’s. While only a subset of people with these diagnoses will have very serious disease, it’s unbelievable that we remain less informed and unprepared for mental health diagnoses, but most of us know plenty to prepare us for our parents getting diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease.
Many people mistakenly believe that all mental illnesses are lifelong problems that sufferers are born with. If you’re parents have never been depressed or had panic attacks or heard voices, you might assume it isn’t going to start now. In fact, most mental illnesses can begin in the teen years, adulthood, or in later life. While those with a previous history of mental illness are at higher risk to suffer symptoms, having no prior history of symptoms does not eliminate the risk.
If your parent is diagnosed with a mental illness:
Understand the illness. Go to appointments, and ask questions.
Arming yourself with information is the best place to begin. Learn about the illness, the treatments, and the long-term prognosis. Will Mom likely return to her old self in a month or two, or can you expect her to continue to decline?
Tell doctors what is happening at home.
Dad is likely to focus on how he is feeling when he talks to the doctor, but you’ll be the expert in how he is behaving. Is he refusing to go to church because of his anxiety? Is he spying on the neighbors through his old Army binoculars? The doctor may not get these things out of him, so a family member will need to tell them.
Make sure your parent understands the treatments prescribed and can safely take medicines on his or her own.
Starting a new course of treatment can be confusing, especially of your parent is getting up in years. One of the most helpful things you can do is make sure the instructions are clear. Set up pillboxes. Write out instructions and post on the bathroom mirror. You may even need someone to be in the house to oversee the treatment for a while.
Be aware of safety risks.
Mental disorders can carry hidden safety risks. Your Mom or Dad could become hopeless and suicidal. They could wander off in confusion, or fall due to a side effect of medication. Think about your parent’s level of independence and any safety risks that need to be addressed in your specific case.
Don’t blame yourself, or believe you should have known sooner.
It’s common for kids of all ages to blame themselves for their parent’s problems. But your parent’s mental illness was not caused by you. Mental illnesses can creep up, and you aren’t capable of perfect awareness. So let yourself off the hook. You’re doing the best you can here.
Help out where you can, but accept that there may be limitations to your ability to help.
Unlike children, adults with new mental illnesses are accustomed to functioning independently. There many be limits to how much involvement Mom or Dad will allow you to have. And if they will accept your help, you may not be available to give it. Maybe you live far away, work full time, or attend school full time. You may have to accept that you are unable to help as much as you would like to.
Find resources in your parents community.
Communities have a wide range of sources of help for people with mental illness. From case managers and home health workers, to community centers and support groups. Find out what’s available in your area.
Ask the experts for help.
If you can’t find the resources you need, consider calling an agency or a private case manager to help you. A licensed social worker can plug you in for support.
Learn about boundaries.
We can’t control others. If your mom won’t take her meds, or your dad refuses to talk to a counselor, there may be nothing you can do to make them. Your parents may make choices you cannot control. And they may be free to do so, even when it’s not in their best interest. Likewise, don’t let your ill parent control you or your life. We are all autonomous decision makers, unless someone reaches the point where they lack the capacity to decide for themselves.
Take care of you, too.
It’s okay to need support for yourself. Mental health problems can be draining and frightening. You may need to talk through some painful feelings, or just take a day for yourself.
Resist the urge to play doctor or therapist.
Let the professionals have the role of treatment provider. They are well trained, and work within well boundaried systems take those roles. You role as supportive family member is big enough on its own.