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Dealing with a Family member with a Mental illness

What is Mental Illness
Warning Signs
How to Cope
Other Resources

What is Mental Illness? [1]

One out of four Americans has a mental illness during any given year.? A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, making it difficult to cope with life's ordinary demands and routines.?

There are more than 200 types of mental illnesses. Some of the more common disorders are:

  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Dementia
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anxiety disorders, such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, thought patterns, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.

Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With proper care and treatment most people with a mental illness or emotional disorder can be helped.

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Warning signs[1]

In adults:

  • Confused thinking
  • Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Denial of obvious problems
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Substance abuse

In older children and pre-adolescents:

  • Substance abuse
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Change in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger

In younger children:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

***If you recognize these symptoms in a loved one it is extremely important to take the warning signs seriously, and help them seek professional help. ***

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How to Cope

Dealing with a family member with a mental illness can be both hard and frustrating.? What you may think is easy and straightforward isn't so for your family member, because the illness impairs their ability to deal with these situations.? Take the time to educate yourself about your family member's illness and its treatment.? It's normal to not understand exactly what your family member is going through.

Patience and understanding are your greatest tools.? Realize that a mental illness can alter moods, attitudes, and habits.? Understand that whoever is suffering from this illness can probably see these changes too, and are probably scared by his or her inability to control him/herself.? Provide your family member with a safe environment so he or she won't be judged or condemned.? Also, encourage your family member to stay on the treatment.? Remember -- your job is to be supportive.? If you do not know how to handle a situation talk to your own doctor or campus health professional for help.? You may, also, want to join a support group for family members of people with mental disorders.?

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[1] Adapted from Mental Illness in the Family: Recognizing the Warning Signs & How to Cope (

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Information from website should not be a substitute
for medical advice from a health care professional.