Having a strong circle of social support is crucial to recovery from mental health and addictions issues. For most individuals, the first line of this circle consists of family members. ‘Family’ needn’t be simply defined as one’s closest blood relations – family members are those who spend time in close proximity to an individual, sometimes even living under the same roof. Since family members know the individual so intimately, they are often the first to notice that something is ‘not quite right’ with their loved one.
Because of the close-knit nature of the family structure, mental health and addictions issues don’t just affect the individual with the issue – they affect the entire family unit. It is often difficult for family members to come to terms with the fact that their loved one has a mental health or addictions issue. There is still a lot of stigma and negative attitudes associated with these issues and family members may internalize some of this stigma. Sometimes life plans, such as going to school, finding work, or pursuing other meaningful activities need to be put on hold, and this can go against hopes that family members have had for their loved ones. An individual’s symptoms, behaviours, indicators, and family members’ reactions to them can cause friction in the home environment. Individuals can be resistant to seeking treatment, and family members may feel the need to try to persuade their loved one to seek help, or even force them into treatment if the individual is a harm to him/herself or others.
Mental health and addictions issues rock the foundations of the family unit. The issue can become the focus of the family’s efforts and the sole topic of conversation. It can get to a point where home life is so stressful that interactions with family members actually exacerbate the issue rather than helping it. After all, supporters, including family members, are only human, and they have their own thresholds for stress tolerance. It is difficult to witness a loved one’s distress, and even more difficult to feel powerless in the face of such distress.
When a loved one finally receives treatment it can feel like a huge relief to family members. It is understandable that family members at this point may feel an urge to ‘back off’, leaving their loved one in the hands of healthcare professionals or other supporters. On the other hand, family members may try to interfere in their loved one’s treatment by telling their loved one what steps to take in their treatment or by having unrealistic expectations. Family members need to recognize the important role that they play in their loved one’s recovery, while at the same time being able to give their loved one the autonomy and space that they desperately crave.
Many modern healthcare teams thankfully include family members in discussions about an individual’s treatment. Healthcare teams can provide education to family members about the facts of their loved one’s issue, which can help dispel some of the myths surrounding the issue. Family workers can facilitate productive discussion between family members and their loved ones and help ensure that everyone’s perspective is honoured and heard. Family workers can also provide vital support to family members who are finding it difficult to cope with their situation. Therapies such as Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (EFFT) help families become better supporters and learn how to facilitate their loved one’s recovery, while at the same time working to repair damage that the family relationships may have sustained.
Each family is different, and so there is no formula for what family members should or shouldn’t do. However, here are some recommendations:
- It is important for family members to be involved in their loved one’s care in a supportive manner that respects the individual’s autonomy and willingness to take on challenges and ‘risks’. Sometimes pushing a family member to do something that they are not ready to do will just provoke resistance. Recovery can be a long, slow journey, and each individual has his or her own pace.
- It is also important to respect a loved one’s decision not to have their family involved in their care. Sometimes individuals need space and time to work on personal issues before they are ready to deal with family issues.
- It is important that family members take some time to consider the fact that interactions in the family unit, including their own behaviours, may have been a contributing factor to their loved one’s issues. This can be a very uncomfortable concept to come to terms with. No one is perfect, and while this does not mean that family members need to take on all the blame for their loved one’s issues, it does mean that family members need to analyze their own issues and how they are affecting the situation.
- It is important that family members talk out their own issues with supporters and practice good self-care. There are many support groups for supporters that are run through hospitals and community programs. Oftentimes talking with other family members who are going through similar issues can be extremely helpful and rewarding.
- Lastly, it is important to remember that the individual is still a whole person – they are not just their mental illness or addiction. Having human conversations about things other than the mental health or addictions issue can do wonders for family relations, reminding the individual that they are still loved and valued as a person.
Family members have the power to become great supports to their loved ones. It takes an open mind and an open heart, and it can be a long and difficult journey filled with advances and backslides. However, supporting a loved one through a mental health or addictions issue will not only help with the individual’s recovery – it will help with the recovery of the whole family unit, bringing family members closer than ever before.