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Mental illness can add extra holiday stress to families
March 1st, 2013
According to the Jewish Association for the Mentally Ill, one in four people will experience mental health difficulties at some time in their lives.
Serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder can affect not only the person diagnosed.
“Severe and persistent mental illness can potentially be difficult on the entire family,” said Jewish Family Services psychotherapist Dafna Berman, L.C.S.W. “It’s a significant burden in part due to the stigma associated with mental illness. It’s also very isolating and never ending.
“As parents, there are all kinds of things we look forward to, like our children growing up, getting married and having children of their own. However, some individuals living with severe and persistent mental illness are unable to reach these significant milestones. This reality is painful to everyone involved.”
Darcy McDaniel, L.C.S.W., JFS psychotherapist, added, “There can be a huge grief element for families because they believe their family member is not going to live up to their potential. A person with a major mental illness may have to go on Social Security Disability Income because they can’t work anymore. And if they don’t have a family of their own, they may become dependent on their parents, siblings, or other family members.”
Holidays and other family get-togethers can be especially difficult, as some individuals living with mental illness consider these types of occasions to be intimidating. A major stressor for their families is how to include this family member.
McDaniel recommends being sensitive to his or her needs. “If you know that being part of a big group is overwhelming to that person, make other accommodations, like doing something with them separately or just having immediate family … people who are familiar and at ease with them. Allow them to have their say about what is and is not comfortable,” said McDaniel.
For example, participating in a Passover seder is a very important ritual in Jewish families. It can, however, be extremely challenging for a person living with a mental illness.
“I work with Orthodox families where a seder can be a lengthy event,” said McDaniel. “If someone with anxiety cannot sit for several hours, then you have to make accommodations and do what works best for your family.
“On the other hand, there may be a family member who likes to draw attention to himself; and he can potentially ‘take over’ the seder or a dinner.”
These situations can be stressful on family members as they have no control over the person with the illness. Simply trying to explain to other relatives, especially children, why the person acts that way can be difficult.
According to McDaniel and Berman, most people who have a family member with a mental illness need some kind of support for themselves as well, although many won’t seek help.
“The Jewish people have always survived by being a tight-knit community with a strong support system that has kept us together,” said Berman. “We know how to give, but we’re not very good at receiving [help]. We are definitely accustomed to seeing ourselves as successful and prominent, but that’s not always the reality.”
One available resource is Supported Journeys, a quarterly support group at JFS for families and friends of people whose lives are challenged by severe and persistent mental illness.
The group, led by Berman, started 25 years ago and is open to all people in the community. Berman said her primary role is listening, because it’s the family members who need to be heard and validated.
“The Supported Journeys support group works because [having a family member with a mental illness is] such a heavy emotional burden to deal with on your own,” said Berman. “People in our group feel comfortable voicing their feelings that they find difficult sharing with anyone else.”
“It can at times feel draining and hopeless. Unlike the death of a loved one, where you go through a process of mourning, potentially reaching a certain level of closure, there is no closure. It’s as if you’re watching your loved one die over and over again,” said Berman.
Others, who are not at ease in a group setting, can choose to meet with a therapist one-on-one.
Said McDaniel: “Often times, we see a family member of a person with mental illness for individual counseling on grief and loss, but we also help them set boundaries: ‘What should I do and not do for my family member anymore? How do I handle it when they are in crisis?’ We talk about how to maintain those boundaries.”
There are other resources available to ease the burden on family members, especially when the person with the mental illness has a crisis.
“You don’t need to deal with it alone. A family can turn to care managers and psychiatrists when the family member has a crisis. A serious mental illness needs a whole team of people versus just one parent, spouse, sibling, or child trying to do it all on their own,” said McDaniel.
McDaniel said it’s important for everyone to know that just because a person has a mental illness, it doesn’t mean that they can’t function in society.
“When people think of mental illness, they think about the worst-case scenario: a homeless person on the street. And that is scary,” said McDaniel. “We don’t think about the people who are going to their jobs or volunteering every day or the person living right next door.”
“We live in a society where we feel if you work harder, you can pull yourself up,” McDaniel continued. “Mental illness doesn’t work that way. It’s a game changer. It’s not that a person with mental illness is lazy or inefficient, it’s just that they have different kinds of struggles.
“Even though they have different struggles, there is a commonality that is true for everyone. We all want safety, security, and have a need to be loved.”
Tara Clark is director of marketing and communications at Jewish Family Services, Inc. JFS is a partner in serving the community with the Milwaukee Jewish Federation.