Having a family member with a mental illness, such as schizophrenia or
depression, can be stressful and isolating. Therefore, many family members
are forming or joining support groups nationwide in order to talk with people
who have similar experiences.
The popularity of support groups is based on evidence that support
programs help family members cope with a loved one's illness. Phyllis
Solomon, PhD, a professor of social work and social work psychiatry at the
University of Pennsylvania, recently studied 225 family members of persons with
a serious mental illness. She found that belonging to a support group
tends to increase a family member's ability to deal with the illness.
"These support groups give family members a sense of community and belonging as
well as coping strategies," she says. Her study concluded that mental
health professionals should encourage family members to use the support provided
by community-based organizations or to form their own groups if none are
How are support groups organized? Typically a mental illness support
group meets more than once a month and is free, however membership in the
sponsoring organization is usually encouraged. A few groups are conducted
by health care professionals, but usually they are led by volunteers who are
family members of people with mental illnesses. There are groups for
family members and friends of people with mental illnesses. There are also
separate groups for teenage relatives, adult children, spouses, and family
members of individuals with mental illness who are in trouble with the law.
Support groups can do more than provide comfort and an opportunity to express
frustration - they can offer concrete information. "Support groups provide
information that people usually can't get elsewhere as they try to navigate
their way through the health care system," says Sue Batkin, Director of Support
Services for the New York chapter of Alliance for the Mentally Ill/Friends and
Advocates of the Mentally Ill. She explains that participants provide each
other with valuable and insightful information about treatment programs, housing
options, and the long term effects of medications. "Ultimately, support
groups empower the family members, making them better advocates."
Batkin says she has witnessed many people in support groups gradually develop
the ability to manage the mental health care system as well as their
relationship with a relative who is mentally ill. "Siblings, for example,
can feel a tremendous burden and worry that they have to give up their own life
to care for their brother or sister. A support group can help them create
boundaries and figure out what they can and can't do." There are support
groups available around the country for mentally ill people and families of the
mentally ill. I would suggest contacting your local chapter of the
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
My wife has manic depression and schizoaffective disorder and I have attended
several support groups. These support groups have helped me to better
understand her disease which in turn allows me to help her through the good
times and the bad.
Source: Family Support by Eugene Wagner