What Is Mental Illness?
Mental illness is something that is difficult to work with, even in the best of times. It often has a major impact upon our lives as we learn to navigate the ins and outs of the disorder, and how to balance many factors that surround the disorder.
Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.
Mental illnesses are serious medical illnesses. They cannot be overcome through "will power" and are not related to a person's "character" or intelligence.
The U.S. Surgeon General reports that 10 percent of children and adolescents in the United States suffer from serious emotional and mental disorders that cause significant functional impairment in their day-to-day lives at home, in school and with peers.
Without treatment the consequences of mental illness for the individual and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide and wasted lives; the economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than 100 billion dollars each year in the United States.
With appropriate effective medication and a wide range of services tailored to their needs, most people who live with serious mental illnesses can significantly reduce the impact of their illness and find a satisfying measure of achievement and independence. A key concept is to develop expertise in developing strategies to manage the illness process.
Management of Mental Illness:
Mental illness may be treated in clinics, psychiatric hospitals and community health centers. Treatment is tailored for each patient and may encompass a number of different options (both together or separately).
1) Psychotherapy is an option for many mental illnesses and may include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - helps patient to modify patterns of behavior and thought associated with a particular disorder.
- Systematic Therapy (Family Therapy) - involves an individual and their network of significant others.
- Psychoanalysis - addresses underlying psychic conflicts and defense mechanisms.
2) Medication is often used to manage a number of mental illnesses. These may include:
- Antidepressants - treatment of depression, anxiety and other disorders.
- Anxiolytics - treatment of anxiety and related disorders.
- Mood Stabilizers - treatment of bipolar disorder.
- Antipsychotics - treatment of psychotic disorders.
- Stimulants - treatment of ADHD.
3) Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) may be used for those who have treatment-resistant depression.
The Role Of Children:
While mental illness may be difficult for people to deal with, it can be devastating to the children of those who suffer with a mental illness. Depending on the type and severity of the disorder, children may be catapulted in to adulthood, even at a very young age. Further, children who are forced to act as caretakers or as adults in a family are often not getting their basic physical and emotional needs met. They learn to ignore their own needs to prioritize the needs of an ill parent. They lose their childhoods, and because children are not adults, they may feel inadequate or feel guilt that they are not able to "make things better." Further, families may become dysfunctional and inappropriate boundaries, expectations, and responsibilities may be set.
This is a similar issue that is faced by children in other trying situations, such as those who are the children of addicts. Again, these children are placed in a situation where they are forced to grow up far too quickly, as they take on the burden of an adult. Children placed in this position because their parent cannot or will not be an effective parent is a horrible burden for a child to bear.
There are many potential problems that arise from a child acting as the care-taker of someone with mental illness. In a study conducted by the University of Michigan, it was found that most children with mothers who have a serious mental illness entered adulthood with psychiatric or behavioral problems. It was found that:
- One third of children did not complete high school.
- One third had psychological problems of their own.
- It was inferred that one third also struggled with relationship issues because at the average age of 22, only one in nine children were in a commited relationship, while 38 percent had children.
Research in this area has been somewhat limited for a few reasons. Largely, because there is a negative stigma of mental illness, many parents do not share that they have a mental illness with their child. As such, the child never fully understands his or her parent's behavior.
Mothers surveyed reported that approximately half of adult children had a major psychological problem, drug or alcohol problem, or legal problem. Bipolar disorder was a particularly strong indicator of risk for adult children developing other problems. Other high-risk disorders include anxiety disorders, ADHD, schizophrenia, alcohol or drug abuse, and depression. These disorders are also geneitic.
Risk To The Child:
One of the most unfortunate aspects of having a mentally ill parent is that the ill parent often receives all the attention and resources, while the children involved are left to fend for themselves.
Further, managing a parent's mental illness can be extremely isolating. Children do not appropriately develop healthy peer relationships with friends, engage in personal interests or hobbies, or even know how to talk to others about what they are going through.
Reaching out for help and breaking the silence is often the first step in breaking the isolation.
While preventative measures do not "cure" the mental illness, it may help combat some of the psychological and risk-induced problems that come with a child taking care of a mentally ill parent. They include:
- Knowing that they are not to blame for the illness.
- Knowing that they are not to blame if the illness gets worse.
- Support from friends or other family members.
- Stability in home life.
- Sense of being loved by the ill parent.
- Positive self-esteem.
- Developed coping skills.
- Appropriate peer relationships.
- Interests outside of taking care of the ill family member.
- Learn to identify and express emotions.
- Seek help.
- It's okay to feel angry.
- Forgive yourself and your parent.
- Learn to trust others.
As an adult who grew up with a mentally ill parent, there are many feelings and concerns you may have about who you are and why you feel or behave how you do. There are many common questions we all ask ourselves.
Why couldn't I make my parent better? There are many reasons that someone may become mentally ill, and how you take care of your parent has no bearing on that. You took care of your parent because you were forced in to the role because no one else could or would take care of your parent. You were probably scared and alone, and trying to keep others from finding out about your family secret. Often children are afraid that others will find out and either take the parent away, hospitalize the parent, or place the child in foster care.
Why did my parent get worse? Not all mental illness is cureable, and not all mental illness is treatable. You are not the cause of your parent's illness, nor whether the illness got better or worse. Often it is up to the parent to be responsible for taking the appropriate steps, such as taking medication regularly or going to treatment regularly, that the child cannot control.
Was I a bad child? Absolutely not! You clearly love your parent very much to help out in the way that you did. It is a difficult role to take and you clearly did all that you could. It is not your fault.
Am I mentally ill? Not necessarily. While some mental illnesses are genetic and you may have a pre-disposed risk, it does not mean that you are for sure mentally ill. If you have questions or concerns about your health, mental health, or if others expressed concerns to you, seek out an assessment from an appropriate mental health provider.
Will I become like my mentally ill parent? In terms of becoming mentally ill, see the above question. In terms of treating your children how you were treated, again, the answer is not necessarily. Often a child growing up in the household of someone who is mentally ill lacks coping skills, self-esteem, and relationship skills. These can all be barriers to other healthy relationships and interactions with others, as well as your own mental health. However, these are all things that you can work on and improve. Therapy is often a good vehicle for addressing these issues.
Will I be a bad parent? You will not become a bad parent because you grew up in a difficult or dysfunctional household. Often there is an extra drive to do better than was done for you. It's about being mindful and asking for help when you need it, and taking pause to be sure you are engaging in the manner that you want to.
Why do I feel so fucked up? Most likely because you didn't get the chance to have a normal childhood. You probably missed out on having friends, sleep-overs, no responsibility, and to make mistakes. Instead you were forced in to being inappropriately responsible for things like bills, appointments, grocery shopping, and other responsibilities that should be handled by your parent. It's not your fault.
University of Michigan - Contains a website with research conducted about the effects of mental illness on adult children.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry - contains a list of risk-reducing factors for problems in adulthood.
Kansas State University - Contains information on dysfunctional families, as well as resources and coping strategies.
Thisiswar.com - Australian survival stories of children whose parents have a mental illness. Some resources contained within.
National Alliance On Mental Illness - contains a comprehensive list of coping strategies.
National Alliance on Mental Illness- NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. Through the dedicated efforts of grassroots leaders, NAMI focuses on three cornerstones of activity that offer hope, reform and health: support, education and advocacy.
Crazy Meds- Yes, that's really the name of the site and it has all kinds of great information about medications used to treat mental illnesses of all kinds. It also offers real people talking about their medication and their situations.
Survivors of Suicide- The pain of survivors of suicide is unique in that there are so many unanswered questions and this site offers a safe place to work through the grieving process with others who are there or have been there.