Being There is a series about how to be there for a loved one with mental health needs. These are stories of real people and their friends, family members and significant others—and how their relationship dynamics are changed or shaped by mental illness.
This article’s focus is on being there for a family member with mental illness. I asked people who have family members with mental health needs what it’s like, what they already do, and what they could stand to improve on.
Answers will be coming from 5 respondents, 3 of whom have chosen to remain anonymous. The nature of the family relationships range from cousins, sisters, aunt-nephew, and mother-son/daughter. This is all taking into account a Philippine culture and setting.
The situations in this particular Being There post will be presented a little differently from the first two, as each family’s story has details that would paint a better picture of their situation.
In a family-centered culture like ours in the Philippines, the family’s attitudes towards mental healthcare and medical care in general can greatly influence—or hinder—the road to recovery. Dani’s cousin has been under her family’s care, which has made getting professional help for him a bit difficult. Her mother has always had an avoidant attitude towards medical services, favoring alternative medicine and homeopathy instead.
“I think it’s also partly due to her not completely understanding what my cousin was going through, and the stigma that her generation or peers maintained—the stigma against people with mental health illnesses, calling them baliw (crazy) or may sira sa ulo (not right in the head).
“I have urged my parents to understand his situation and be open to him getting the appropriate treatment, since my parents used to be against it.” Dani’s father eventually convinced her mother to let her cousin take psychotropic medication, as he was more comfortable with the idea of clinical care. “However, I’ve never talked to it about him personally. It’s only been almost a year since he’s been diagnosed, and I don’t know how to approach the topic.”
Dani mentions that her cousin’s mental illness used to affect them, but incidents of increased reactivity and moodiness have since minimized after he started taking medication. “Regardless, I’ve never treated our relationship dependent on whether or not he was experiencing this illness or its symptoms.”
Lack of understanding, of both the mental illness and the situation, can cause people to say hurtful things. “Bakit ka ninenerbiyos? Nasa isip mo lang ‘yan. (Why do you get nervous? It’s all in your head.)”
Nikko’s aunt would get yelled at by her own son like this at times, while the rest of his family doesn’t quite know what to do when her anxiety strikes. At this rate, he is arguably the strongest link in her support system. “My aunt actually turns to me sometimes when she gets panic attacks. I suppose it’s because she knows my psych background.”
His aunt has been experiencing panic attacks since his uncle, her husband, passed away. “She gets very anxious when alone, and always wants to be with her son. But the son doesn’t really fully understand her anxiety. He at times gets angry at her for being anxious, which doesn’t help one bit.
While it’s easy to antagonize Nikko’s cousin in this situation, he still sympathizes with him: “I get where he’s coming from. His mom being very dependent on him for support can get taxing, but a little understanding goes a long way.”
Seeing a loved one go through mental illness is very painful for close family members. An anon with a close relationship with her sister says, “As her sister, I feel like I have always had the power to somehow save her from drowning, and even from things that are far worse.”
It hurts for this particular anon to see her sister push her away and singlehandedly go through the problems that arise from mental illness. “It hurts me when I see her go up against her internal struggles seemingly alone. As much as I want to help, it’s really just hard to get through her, and of course the fact that we both live very different, busy lives takes a toll too.”
“The fact that I could not achieve that, even after all these years, pains me to my very core. The burden for me has never normalized, and as long as she is stuck in that state, it never will.”
Mental illness can alienate what is normally deemed the closest of relationships. An anon responded with a dismaying story of them and their mother—whom they tolerate, but need to muster all the patience to do so. “She tends to push us away, because of the way she thinks that everyone is against her. She doesn’t try to trust anyone anymore other than the misguided, [questionable] sources such as the news media and social media.”
Of their closeness with their mother, the anon responded, “I just live with her, but not live to integrate her life into mine.”
Treating the mentally ill* as incapable undercuts the many strengths and talents they have. An anon recalls their relationship with their young adult cousin with a speech delay*. They are worried that their cousin has not finished college yet, as her family has been giving her several breaks: “I know the way her family treats her is kind of not helpful for her situation, long term-wise. I am worried for her future, and there is nothing I can do right now to help that.”
Anon mentions that her thoughts and talents would leave them in awe when they would talk. “She can be awkward in conversations, but her thoughts and intentions just blow me away, so that it doesn’t really matter if she’s different than the rest of us.”
(*This is more of a developmental delay, but there is a take-away from this nonetheless. I am also an advocate for PWSNs, and hope you share my sentiments. As Ateneo SPEED says, “different, not less.”)
Here are tips, according to the same people who have shared their family’s stories in the context of caring for a family member with mental health needs.
(Recurring Item #1) Listen. The importance of this cannot be more emphasized—especially in a situation where stigma against mental illness can be so entrenched. Dani reminds her family to listen to her cousin’s opinion of his own mental health needs: “I advise them to be open-minded to that person, and to remind themselves that this person’s opinion comes first. It’s not their right or responsibility to decide for people with mental health needs.”
Anon says of their cousin with a speech delay, “When we get the chance to talk, I listen to her intently. I give value to her thoughts and talents. They’re all amazing, which makes her an amazing person.” Another anon tries to get her sister to open up: “In the event that I could talk to her when we’re both emotionally convenient, I would try to push her to just spill all her problems, in hopes that she would have a lighter heart after. And thankfully, that usually is the case.”
(Recurring Item #2) Be there. Another recurring point across this series is to make yourself available to your loved one. Nikko has tried to educate the rest of his family on mental illness, but has resorted to simply being there for his aunt: “It can get very rough for her, and I try to tell my family to try and get them to understand, but it’s hard. So I comfort her, and she asks me to stay with her.” The anon with a strained relationship with their mother advises, “As much as they don’t understand you anymore because they have too many things on their hands, just… be with them. maybe it’s all they really need.”
Anon wishes they could be there for their cousin more, “I wish I could be more present with her. I think she needs that kind of support. She herself knows her condition, and she tells us sometimes that she wishes she was ‘normal.’ And I would love to be there for her more and make her feel amazing and one with us, her cousins. Be there for them. There’s nothing that could beat love and presence.”
Another anon takes her sister out for food, knowing what she calls “her most intimate love” for it: “I would usually take her out somewhere near. I guess when dealing with a struggling person, those aren’t really the most optimal choices to take. What matters the most to me is that I let her know that I’m always there with her.”
Look out for their physical well-being, too. As family, there is the added responsibility of looking out for one another in a way that friends don’t normally do. Anon calls to mind that this is an overlooked aspect of being a support system: “Being a support system comes in many shapes and sizes. It may come from big gestures like letting said person rant, or even just providing said person with things as small as their pills.”
“When said person wants to exhaust all their stress, there is a fine line between allowing them to indulge in food, and allowing them to binge rum. Help the person [make] good choices. But at the end of the day, what will matter is that you will not only be there for them, but together you will make life your bitch.”
Refer them to professional help, if needed. Nikko has trouble convincing his aunt to seek professional help, but won’t give up on it: “I feel like I’ve done the best I could, but there is only so much I could do.” He even has difficulty explaining to his family what his aunt’s anxiety entails, as they do not have a psych background like him, after all: “I suppose it would help to try to explain to family members exactly what is happening, and even outline exactly how they can help their relatives with mental illness. And don’t be afraid to go to a specialist.”
The older generations, in particular, can be resistant to the idea of mental healthcare. Anon calls to mind their situation with their mother, “If possible, try to persuade them to ask for help and be open to ideas for change. Stand strong.”
In most of what has been shared, the attitudes of the family members towards mental illness have been quite negative. This is due to the stigma still ingrained to mental illness in the typical Filipino household. Nikko mentions this difficult truth, saying, “It’s difficult in the Philippines. Knowledge about mental illness isn’t commonplace.”
It’s unfortunate that family was considered as the least helpful support system by most of the people with mental health needs who were surveyed. It’s a bit of a downer to read about, but it’s a reality we must face.
Although family tries to help, there is still the notion of it being shameful or something easily fixed by positive thinking, in the case of parents. –Aly
My family brings me to my psychiatrist and they pay for my antidepressants, but mental illness is still viewed as some sort of weakness or something that must be kept “secret” amongst the older members of my family, so that doesn’t really help when it comes to my wanting to be honest with them about what I’ve been going through. –Alex
There has been misunderstanding among us, especially with my parents, when it comes to the topic of my mental illness. –Anon
Parents are and will always be traditional-minded somehow, and are more “practical” than friends, who suggest professional help, etc. They may tire of the ways to understand and I personally do not want to use my problem as an excuse for anything. –Anon
Family. I don’t think my family understands it very well that I’m going through an actual sickness. Yes, my mom bought my medicines but she keeps on insisting that I try to be better as much as I can because the medicines are very expensive and she thinks they’re ineffective. She keeps on telling me to be happy and to think of positive things, which I appreciate. However, telling us to try to be happy does more damage than healing. –Agnes
My parents tend to be the least helpful to me because they usually don’t “get” the things happening in my head. They are also very busy and consumed with responsibilities so I feel guilty taking too much of their time. –Sara
Unlike our relationships with our friends, we don’t get to choose who our family is—we cannot decide whether a family member will have a mental illness, just as we cannot decide whether the rest of the family will be well-equipped to be a good support system.
Despite everything, we can make the most of what we have now, whether that means urging family to help a relative seek appropriate treatment, or attempting to educate family members on psychological conditions.
There have still been respondents who said that family was the most helpful in their struggle with mental illness. Amber says, “Without the support my parents and mental health professionals give me, I would be struggling more than I am now.”
An anon shares the same sentiments, saying that “Family is the most important because they’re the one closest to me, literally and emotionally. They provide emotional and financial support in treating my mental illness.” 💌
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