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How family members can support a loved one with mental illness

Age-appropriate discussions about mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical wellness also are important.

When someone in a family has a mental illness such as depression, life can become stressful for the family unit. Whether it’s an adult caregiver or a teen, home dynamics and routines may be disrupted.

In a typical year, about one in five adults has a mental illness, and 17 percent of youth experience a mental health disorder. Some studies indicate at least 40 percent of adults were impacted by mental illness at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 14 children had a caregiver with poor mental health in 2020.

“Mental illness impacts everyone in a family because it can disrupt the ability for members to perform their roles, as well as their ability to provide the love and care each person needs,” said Dave Kellerhals, Director of Mental Health Services at Rosecrance Central Illinois. “The pandemic added stressors none of us anticipated or had dealt with before. It was challenging for many people who couldn’t see a counselor or had to find new coping strategies.”

However, pandemic experiences reinforced the family’s role as a supportive community as members spent time together and relied more strongly on each other. More people openly dealt with mental health and sought help, and once telehealth became more widely available, many more found support.

“Mental health is a difficult topic, but when you can sit down and have a discussion about something that affects many people, it becomes easier to talk about,” Kellerhals said. “I’m glad that more are willing to seek treatment and speak about their experiences. That will be a great help to individuals and families.”

To help families who have a loved one with mental illness, Kellerhals encourages an empathetic, non-judgmental approach. Age-appropriate discussions about mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical wellness also are important. In addition, mental illness should be treated in conversation the same way as a physical ailment like a broken bone or disease diagnosis.

Families also can find support through sources such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and school counselors or social workers. Rosecrance provides a family program and other supports, including caring Access counselors who can answer questions or listen to concerns. The Access team is available at 888-928-5278.

To learn more about the challenges adolescents face, tune into Rosecrance’s podcast series “On your Radar.” Experts discuss topics such as teen mental health and how to encourage an adolescent to seek treatment. An upcoming episode will highlight the importance of healthy family systems.

“I don’t think families realize all the resources that are out there,” Kellerhals said. “Setting up a support system is one of the most important things a family can do. If they focus on that, they will be much more likely to be successful.”

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