"All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own fashion." From Anna Karenia by Leo Tolstoy

Mental illness in a family may be passed down from one generation to another. It can be hereditary or acquired. It may come from stress, brain injury, traumatic experiences, child abuse, substance abuse, a chemical exposure, organic causes or a family coping pattern.

Statistics show that one in every four people has a short or long term mental or emotional illness. This creates confusion and often pandemonium in a family. In the old days people were locked in attics or basements or thrown into a sanitarium never to be heard from again. Would it surprise you to learn that in many areas this still happens with many variations?

Mental illness is hard to pinpoint. Depression, anxiety, bipolar illness, personality disorders often have to go on a long time before the person is willing to get help and this is exacerbated by the family's denial. They often try to force the person to shape up using threats or bribery, or try to ignore the problem, or make excuses and plan life around the ill person's behavior. The ill person may be self medicating with drugs or alcohol or isolating from the rest of the family. They may appear hostile or lethargic or sad all the time; they may be suicidal. They are always self-absorbed. They might be cutting themselves or binging on food.

When there is a mentally ill person in the family the whole family might feel bad or crazy. There are feelings in the family of denial, guilt, embarrassment, distortion of reality, blame, fear and anger. How can the family be sure there is an illness? How is it to be dealt with? Couldn't the person just get better on his/her own without all this confusion? "Maybe if we just ignore it then it will go away and is it really that bad anyway?" Who can we go to for help?

There is an organization called NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.) They offer a free 12-week course for family members of the mentally ill. Those family members who are at the end of their rope or who want the best for their loved one would be well advised to dial 211, the SD Helpline or go on line to www.nami.org. Or if it is an alcohol or drug problem call AA or Al-anon. Put aside your fear of being disloyal, be willing to reach out and when you do you will find willing supportive arms waiting for you.


Evelyn Leite is a counselor with 28 years of experience in addictions, mental health and grief work. She is the author of 8 published books and numerous articles. She founded Living With Solutions in 1989 to help people learn how to help themselves.