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Ask Stavroula: My Son Suffers from Mental Illness and I Cannot Manage It

Dear Stavroula,

I am 55 years old and I have a son who has developed a common mental illness in the last two years. From the beginning, he was treated by a psychiatrist and a psychologist. His condition sometimes improves and sometimes gets worse. Every time it gets worse I can't manage it. I collapse mentally maybe because every time he gets better I hope that it’s finally over and my son can find himself again. And this hope is constantly being denied. I try to find what I did wrong, what went wrong in the way I raised him and it all makes me feel even worse. I have another child, a daughter who goes to school and I feel remorse for her, too, because I cannot spend as much time with her as I would like or be happy and pleasant with her. I have talked to a psychologist but he did not help me much. Is there anything that could help me?

Maria T.

Dear Maria,

Every family that has a member suffering with a mental illness faces a complex and difficult situation, which is experienced as a ‘loss’ of the previous family reality and leads to mourning. In the beginning, there is a denial of the situation, then negative emotions such as frustration, shame, fear, sadness, despair, and anger alternate. The way the family works changes and mental illness affects the lives of all members and not just the one who has the problem.

Families of people with mental illness often feel isolated and helpless. And this is because mental illnesses even today are unfortunately treated with negative stereotypes, with the result that both the patient and his family are faced with social stigma or marginalization.

What is usually not emphasized is that in addition to the mentally ill person, support from specialists is also needed by family members to understand the disease and its treatment options, to know how to deal with the problems that arise, and to withstand the changing situations that often follow the treatment of a mental illness.

It is therefore very important for you to get systematic support from a mental health professional, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Even if a specialist has not helped you enough in the past, another may be able to help you manage the moments when you feel like you are mentally collapsing as you watch your child suffer. This way you will be able to find yourself again, and offer quality time to your other child.

A second thing you can do is look for self-help groups or family associations that have similar problems. It is important in such cases not to feel alone and to be close to people who can understand you and to find support through them.

It is also very important not to blame yourself, or feel guilty. It makes no sense to get into this catastrophic process, especially since modern theories attribute the genesis of mental illness mainly to other factors. Each of us comes to life with our own ‘material’, for which neither he nor his relatives are responsible. With this material he walks and moves between its possibilities and limitations.

Finally, create space and time for yourself. Aim to maintain an appropriate level of independence from your child and engage in whatever you enjoy, especially outside of your own home. Take care of yourself with the same love you take care of your child. Try as much as possible to see what is happening in your family from different angles that will help you adapt more easily to the new situation.

In these cases, acceptance is life-saving. Maybe you should also accept that mental illness is not something rare, a negative ‘lottery’ but a rather common phenomenon in our time that we prefer to hide, because we do not know how to deal with it. If we look at mental illness differently, as illnesses that can happen to anyone, without wrapping ourselves in shame and guilt, we may be able to manage it more effectively and essentially help our loved one.

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