CREATING A SAFE SPACE FOR PERSONS WITH MENTAL ILLNESSES: ROLE OF FAMILY
The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is “Make mental health for all a global priority”. Prioritisation of mental health starts with one’s family. Family in most cases is the safest space for an individual to share their concerns. Family is usually the biggest support system of an individual. Does the same standard apply to challenges faced by a person with mental illness (PMI)?
Is silence or a lack of discussion of one's mental health issue a form of stigmatization of mental illness? I would believe so. I faced a similar kind of issue during my first psychotic episode in 2007. When I had my relapse in 2017, my family did not ignore the reasons for the episode and provided me with the best medical care. Nobody felt ashamed of what had happened, including my extreme actions and behavior during the psychosis which had adversely impacted our lives.
When I decided to come out about my mental health condition on social media, I had the full support of my immediate family. However, I was told by other family members that I am affecting the reputation of the family and should not post my journey on social media. Given the level of awareness and sensitisation, it is not reasonable for everyone to understand and be sensitive to a third party's mental health issue. So, I wouldn’t blame them.
But what shocks me is when doctors in my family, viewed my depressive episode as laziness and recommended I fight them with my mind. One explanation I received justifying this approach was that they don't want to hurt me by directly addressing the issue. It is an insult to my intelligence if they believe that directly discussing the issue is going to affect me!
The main reason for families to shy away from discussing mental health issues is because they are unaware that providing a safe space empowers the PMI. I strongly believe in the goodness of one’s parents, siblings, spouse, in-laws, etc., i.e., the immediate family members. They will not in most situations, do something that will intentionally harm their loved ones. However, the lack of psychoeducation leads to a regressive mindset that impedes them from embracing the concerns of a family member facing mental health issues.
A supportive family can not only provide good medical care to a PMI but also provide a safe space for them to share their issues. In my case, while I take therapy, my family continues to be my sounding board. This makes a world of difference for a PMI. The discrimination that a PMI faces from the outside world will be magnified if they face the same treatment from their kith and kin. This will make them lonely and worsen their health issues.
Further, the approach shown by one’s family also impacts the approach taken by a PMI towards their illness. If a family estranges its member who suffers from a mental health issue, then it could lead to the person seeking solace in excessive use of drugs and alcohol, and in extreme situations, suicidal behavior.
Some mental health conditions could be passed on genetically. In such cases, the family should face the issue as a united front; else it would lead to a blame game that does not help anyone. In addition, this distances the PMI and makes their situation worse.
A common issue faced by PMIs is the lack of continuous employment. Financial support from the family may not be possible in all situations. However, the family should avoid belittling the person because of their employment status. This is important as the PMI itself in most scenarios, could be suffering from an inferiority complex and self-loathing due to lack of a job.
After graduating from the top law school in the country, I got recruited by one of the top law firms. I was doing extremely well until I had my relapse. Due to this, I had to take a long break. Meanwhile, my peers were getting promoted and doing extremely well in their respective jobs. I was suffering from an extreme inferiority complex, self-blame, and self-loathing as I was unemployed and falling behind in comparison to my peers. If my family, especially my husband, was not there to reinforce my strengths and show me the positives, I would have completely shattered. No one in my immediate family ever broached the topic of my not having a job. Alternatively, they encouraged me to work on my strengths and assured me that things will turn a corner. If they had passed any judgments about my unemployment, it would have broken me further.
One of the common questions asked in my peer support group is regarding relationships, marriage, and finding the right partner. Of course, one cannot choose their parents but can have a say in who their partner should be. For a PMI, my main piece of advice is to always disclose your condition however trivial it may be to your partner. One should remember that in a relationship, the mental health condition is not only going to affect them but also their partner. Therefore, it is not fair for either of you to keep your potential partner in darkness. The relationship should be an informed decision.
I am not sure how our relationship dynamics would have panned out if I had not told my husband about my first episode in college. To be honest, I don’t want to speculate about it!
This week, I was taken off my mood stabilizer and I am on a maintenance dose. I am not sure if all my readers would know what this means, but I am certain a person with bipolar disorder would know how much this impacts one's life. I would not have been able to reach this stage of recovery if not for the continuous and unconditional support of my immediate family.
I strongly urge you to give that safe and non-judgmental space to your loved one(s) facing any mental health issue, however small or large it may be. Having a mental health condition can be a very lonely and disturbing journey if you don’t have your family beside you.