My brother/sister has mental illness. What about me?
It is a life-changing moment when parents receive a mental illness diagnosis for their child (even if their child is an adult), but it is also a life-changing moment for siblings of the individual diagnosed with the illness. Unfortunately, there is often not enough focus on “well” siblings, although they are affected in many of the same and some different ways. Maybe you know someone who is in a similar situation, and so understanding what they may be going through may allow you to reach out and help them.
A Rollercoaster of Emotions
Siblings of an individual with a mental illness can experience a wide range of emotions such as confusion, anger, hopelessness, and grief. This can especially be true if the person takes a supportive and/ or caregiving role.
They can also experience frustration with things like the mental health system, as it can feel overwhelming to understand. They can mourn their sibling in terms of “what could have been”, as they might have imagined the future of their family to be quite different.
Questioning the Future
Some might worry about their futures, even if they don’t have a mental illness. Because there may be a genetic component to certain mental illnesses, an individual may worry they will pass down the mental illness to their children. This can then come with guilt because they might feel they don’t want their children to be like their sibling. They may also feel stress worrying about what will happen when their parents will pass away, especially if their sibling is dependent on someone else for their care.
Siblings may feel a pressure to take on more responsibility within the family unit. Even if the parents do not ask for the individual to take a bigger role in the household, they may feel a burden to make sure things in the home run smoothly because their sibling’s mental illness may be chaotic and unpredictable. This added responsibility can lead to stress and anxiety, especially if the individual thinks they are not doing enough. It can also be stressful if the new responsibility is disruptive to the person’s life. A big change like this can affect an individual in many ways. Some, especially younger children, might work hard to be the “perfect child” for their parents. They do not want to cause more trouble and add more stress to a possibly already tense home environment.
Feelings of Guilt
Individuals may experience what is known as “survivor’s guilt”. A person who has an ill sibling may feel guilty that they were ‘spared’ from having the illness themselves, and they may internalize these feelings and feel the need to demonstrate that they are healthy and step up in a role of helper. This can bring a person down because guilt is a strong emotion that can affect one’s life in an important way.
We have a support group three times a month for family and friends of someone living with mental illness. Click here for information.
– Gabrielle Lesage
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