Families and Mental Illness

When a member of a family develops a mental illness, the whole family is impacted in some way.  That is because the family unit is a system of interactions and a change in one part often initiates a change in another.  Mental illnesses are chronic illnesses in that they are lifelong, even though the symptoms may not be present at all times. With appropriate treatment the symptoms of a mental illness may go into remission.

How do family members respond to the situation where a member of the family is experiencing a mental illness?  The answer is : they may have a wide mixture of emotions.  This could be shown as concern, anger, anxiety, sadness, love, guilt or sadness to mention just a few.  Such responses to the situation could be understandable and normal under situations of stress. If the person experiencing the mental illness is the focus of everyone’s attention – others in the family could feel left out.   Family members can be an important element of support  to a person experiencing a mental illness.  As such family members can be part of the team that assists a person in handling a mental illnesses.   Most mental health experts agree that the responsibility and choices around recovery for adults experiencing mental illness are up to the individual rather than the family.  When minor children are involved however parents must take a more significant role about treatment.

What things help families cope with situations in which a family member is experiencing a mental illness?  First of all help everyone in the family learn as much as they can about the particular mental illness that is affecting your family member. The mental health professional that you are dealing with can suggest sources.  Learn about  the general nature of the illness, find out about medications.  Be sure to use sources of reliable facts.  The Canadian Mental Health Association is an excellent organization for information, support and help  Enroll in a Mental Health First Aid workshop.  Canadian law does not allow you to obtain a relative’s diagnosis and treatment, as this is confidential.  Your relative would need to share this information with you.

Acknowledge the feelings of each family member.  All members of the family need to be taken care of.  Encourage each member to share their feelings and take time to care for yourself.

Seek out support from others.  Social stigma and fear of mental illness often creates a situation of isolation just when we need our trusted and supportive friends. Seek out your trusted friends and open up to them.  Let those around you know what is happening in your life and family and let them be there for you.

Take time for yourself and others in the family.  Caregiving takes a lot of energy.  Look for time to take a walk, have fun and above all to recharge your energy.

Look for support groups that you can join.  Meeting with individuals and other family members who are experiencing similar situations can be very helpful.  You may have ideas to share with these persons as well.

Try to anticipate helpful coping strategies for times when a family member might be difficult to handle.  Talk with mental health professionals to help you plan in advance and know what actions to take in these situations.  Share these strategies with other family members and be sure to share ideas about what to do in a crisis.

Families are not alone in dealing with a member’s mental illness.  Building a strong supportive network will help all family members including the member experiencing a mental illness can flourish rather than languish.   Achieving mental health is a challenge for all of us.

References related to families and mental health:

Mental Illness in the Family

Living with Mental Illness: A guide for Family and Friends  Nova Scotia’s Mental Health Capital Region


Volunteer Chaplains Reflect on Assisting Evacuees from Fort McMurray

By Rev. Richard Reimer


In response to the crisis provoked by wildfires in Alberta’s north in May, 2016, volunteer chaplains have been offering pastoral care to evacuees of Fort McMurray housed temporarily in student residences at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.  For this month’s article on the CARE website, I asked three volunteer chaplains what they encountered, how they responded, and what they might recommend to those seeking to offer support.

Audrey Brooks is Unitarian Chaplain at the University of Alberta.  Audrey says that for many the experience of driving down the highway with the wildfire right there beside them was very traumatic.  And for some this was compounded when seeing their houses burn as they fled. Yet she found that among the evacuees, especially among the many immigrant families, a beautiful, loving spirit expressed in care for one another, and a desire to reach out to others.  She recalls one sweet little boy who asked her permission to help distribute bottles of water. Audrey herself seized the opportunity presented by a couple with a sick child to offer the guest bedroom in her home as accommodation.  They are becoming family, the child calling Audrey “grandma”, and the couple cooking meals for everyone.  Their Catholic faith is a source of needed strength as they try to sort out their next steps.  Audrey is direct in calling us to action:  if you see someone in need and don’t reach out, it’s an insult to the Holy Spirit!

Matt Lyseng is Pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in Leduc.  Matt noted a lot of concern among evacuees about the next step.  Though tremendously grateful to be safe and fed, they were worried about what their future might hold.  Many really wanted, needed and enjoyed the opportunity he gave them to talk openly about their experience.  His chaplain badge helped.  Some weren’t sure what that meant.  When he explained the boundaries of his role—an openness to listen, to answer questions, to be present with no strings or proselytizing attached—long conversations often followed.  In offering support, Matt advises openness to the individual and suspending any assumptions, for example, about people living Fort McMurray.  These are people from a tremendous variety of backgrounds, sisters and brothers in a shared humanity, and any of us could find ourselves in their situation.

Denise Davis-Taylor, United Church Chaplain at the University of Alberta, has been coordinator of volunteer chaplain services.  The first thing she noticed was that people were still in shock, dazed and slowly becoming aware of basic needs, like socks and underwear.  They were so grateful for the food provided, and that they only needed to show up for meals.  Yet there was fear; some didn’t have tenant insurance, others had lost houses, and still others didn’t know whether there would be homes to return to.  Denise offered a listening ear, and many were happy, even eager, to tell their stories over and over again:  how they got out, sometimes evacuated twice, about being separated from and then finding family members.  That Denise didn’t have an agenda, or a line-up (!), helped open up space to share.  Though many resources were available to evacuees, they were listed on paper, and immigrants still struggling to read had trouble knowing what they could access.  Denise was able to help simply by telling them, for example, that their yellow wristbands gave them free access to the LRT and recreation facilities.  Her role as chaplain allowed her to ask about spiritual resources.  Are you a person of faith?  How is your faith helping you out?  Denise set out a flip chart, offering a prayer and leaving a space that people filled with other prayers.  Many she encountered were Muslims, and these were helped by the invitation to Friday prayers organized by the Muslim Student Association.  As coordinator of volunteer chaplains, Denise was impressed that there was no problem in filling her schedule, especially by Anglican and Lutheran clergy and hospital chaplains.  Offering support, Denise says, is about acknowledging what’s happened, the frustration of not knowing what’s next, expressing sorrow, and affirming we’re with you in this.

I hope that you will find these reflections from volunteer chaplains helpful as you seek to offer support in your own way to the evacuees of Fort McMurray. And to all impacted I wish to offer this litany written by Pastor Keith Loewen:


Litany in the Aftermath of the Fort McMurray wildfire.

(Reverend Keith Loewen, Calgary, May 30, 2016)


Leader: Creator, after a monumental struggle, we come to you seeking energy and faith.

Gathering: After the fiery chaos in our lives that threatened what we hold dear, we are in shock and we grieve. 

L: At the same time we are grateful and encouraged.

G: We have lost much, but still have each other. 

L: We are weary but strengthened by your love through the good will of others.

G: We pray that you will give us strength and perspective through the support of our neighbours, friends and loved ones, even as we mourn what we have lost.

L: As time goes on and we work our way through the turmoil of the fire’s aftermath, we pray for your spirit of hope and peace.

All: Creator, we pray in your loving name. Amen.