Family and their role in mental health

By Kudakwashe Banda

In early 2018, after what was to be my last hospitalization for clinical depression and substance abuse, in my case it was an unhealthy dependence on alcohol, I bought a certain member of my family a bottle of wine to thank them for the support they had given me through what was indeed a trying time in my life. This family member said “I’ll take it but I really don’t know why you put us through so much, I don’t know why you are so cruel to us”.

Portrait of african american family taking a selfie together with digital tablet at home. Family and lifestyle concept.

This was indeed a very painful statement to make because when a person is struggling with mental health issues and also develops other unhealthy habits along with that, it must be understood that this is no way done intentionally, nor to purposefully inflict cruelty on anyone. Struggling with mental health is indeed a very difficult and lonely journey because unlike other illnesses, for example diabetes you cannot physically see any symptoms. It is all happening in the brain, imbalance of chemicals emotional trauma and the like and then manifests in other ways such as alcohol dependence and abuse, violence, hallucinations and a host of other reactions. Therefore, it is important that family members of a person struggling with mental health learn to recognise this and play a more supportive role and thereby avoid unnecessary statements and reactions that may push one even further down an unnecessary path.

Again I use myself as an example in this next point as I hope through my experiences it will help others to avoid or take a better route when dealing with their loved one who is experiencing mental health challenges. When I was officially diagnosed by my psychiatrist in June 2015, the diagnosis being clinical depression a course of treatment was prescribed which included medication to address the depression, anxiety and insomnia I was experiencing. It was quite an extensive course of medication which is often the case when you begin treatment for mental health. The medication like most medications for other illnesses initially has side effects which wear off with time. Initially your loved one may be excessively drowsy, without appetite amongst other symptoms but if the medication is taken correctly after six or so weeks these are resolved.

There was a family member of mine who reacted angrily firstly as to why I agreed to go on medication, and then they were angry because I was clumsy and more or less out of it as the medication took effect in my system. For family members of your loved one experiencing this, please understand that medication will only be prescribed when a professional has assessed that this is the best course of action. It is not a decision reached lightly but is done in order to restore a sense of wellbeing and normality in your loved one’s life. It will be difficult to see them experiencing the initial side effects, but be patient. It is important that you be as supportive as you can as it is often a lonely time in life for your loved one going through this. Support them by ensuring they are taking their medication as prescribed. Offer to do small supportive things such as cook meals for them and check up on how they are feeling regularly. This goes a long way in offering support to your loved one who is going through these challenges on their journey with their mental health.

The final point I will address is with regards to the role that family plays with the professionals treating their loved one for mental health challenges. These professionals include psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses and occupational therapists. Often when it has gotten to the point that a loved one is now being treated professionally for their mental health, those conducting the treatment will ask for involvement from close family members. This is done so that they may better explain to family members what exactly is happening, why a loved one with mental health challenges is behaving in certain ways, and how the family can play a role in the recovery of their loved one. It is extremely important that family members get involved in this process as much as possible so as to be able to support as best they can.

I was not fortunate enough to receive this as one meeting with my psychologist at which only one family member attended became quite combative, and when my psychiatrist requested a meeting it was met quite negatively and none of my family attended. It was on this day that my psychiatrist said to me I will have to be strong and walk the road alone which was a painful revelation, but I understood and pressed on with my journey. Therefore I speak from personal experience and cannot stress the importance of a family’s support enough on what can often be a lonely journey. In this aspect of your loved one’s treatment, take the time to be involved in their treatment as much as possible. It will make the journey to recovery for your loved one so much easier. Establish and maintain good relationships with those who will be involved in their treatment.

Mental health challenges come in several different forms and manifest in several different ways some of which may result in some destructive behaviour patterns and habits that will be particularly exhausting to the family and loved ones. Practice patience with your loved one who is facing mental health challenges. In the same way family would support an illness with severe physical symptoms, offer the same support to your loved one facing mental health challenges, whose symptoms unfortunately may not manifest in obvious physical symptoms. Your love and support as family will go a long way on their road to recovery.