You can’t have mental illness in a family without it touching everyone. It’s like a mobile that hangs above a baby’s crib. You touch one part and the rest of it starts to move around. When one person in a family changes for the worse, the others can’t help but react differently.
Everyone has expectations, memories, and rhythms unique to themselves. Family members get used to these over time. When these patterns change, families have more conflict, more emotional distance, more confusion, more pain, and a lot of adjustment. This usually causes people to do what they can to not only keep the family somewhat functional but to also reduce pain for themselves. The tension from this adjustment is often palpable.
The family tries to remain functional, but there is something deeply wrong under the surface. If the family group does not successfully address or manage the problem, these adjustments could continue for years and have a lasting impact. And even if the family does communicate honestly and address the problem, the adjustments can continue throughout the process.
Imagine that you are a kid with a brother who is just a couple years older than you. For years, you were each other’s playmates. Then over a period of months, he changed from an outgoing energetic boy to a sullen irritable boy who liked to keep to himself. He used to laugh with you, now he snaps and seems angry when you try to talk to him. Not only have you lost a playmate but you have also lost some camaraderie with a sibling to relate to within the family.
You now feel somewhat lonely and show your sadness by hanging out by yourself and not showing your usual energy. Your parents are now concerned not only for their older son who has become very different, but now their younger child seems down and less interested in spending time with the family.
This creates another loop of worry and adjustment for both parents. Your choice to isolate more also means your brother has fewer social experiences. In his mind, it confirms his loneliness. As you can see, just one person in a family having symptoms of a mental illness can set off a web of reactions that affect everyone. Even the older boy’s isolation ends up coming back to haunt him by making him more alone.
If this scenario is caught and addressed quickly, sometimes just formal mental health treatment for the individual will be enough to make things better. Some family conversations at home can also help everyone understand what happened and how they have improved. But if this goes on for a many months or years, family counseling might be necessary.
Mental illness adjustments may have been around so long they have become ingrained habits. For complicated situations, restoring a family’s collective mental health can take some time. It’s well worth the effort but it’s easy to get impatient or think nothing is working. Just remember – these problems didn’t show up overnight, and they won’t get better overnight either.