In Mental Illness, A Strong Support System is Essential

When I was diagnosed with schizophrenia eight years ago it was like walking in a fog. I was lost in my delusions, I was confused about what was happening to me and I was trying to grapple with what exactly reality was.

My family was suffering too.

They had no background with mental illness and no frame of reference about what to expect with it.

I had asked for help a few times but they just thought my skewed thinking was a result of smoking marijuana and that once I stopped everything I would be fine. It didn’t click for them until after my first major episode when they took me to the hospital and I was finally diagnosed.

I don’t recall a whole lot from those first few months but I’m sure my parents were racking their brains for an answer about what to do with their son. It was even disclosed to me later on that my mom had sought anti-depressants because she was so concerned.

The case with a lot of instances of major mental illness is that the person who is sick doesn’t realize or doesn’t accept their illness and so they don’t seek help. They refuse to take their meds and they refuse to go to the doctor.

Many times too, the family of the person who is sick has no clue about how to help, that or the family doesn’t care or just plain isn’t there. That’s why a good deal of mentally ill people end up on the streets. The support structure just isn’t there and to be honest, that breaks my heart.

I have been extremely fortunate to have a family that cared enough to educate themselves on what was going on. I can remember one day my Mom came home with an armload of books on mental illness and how to deal with it and she poured through those books voraciously, trying desperately to understand how to help.

Although I was a bit lost during that time, I was also fortunate to understand and realize that what was happening in my brain wasn’t right. I think those two factors can make or break recovery.

Someone has to want to recover and there needs to be a support structure in place to aid the person in their recovery.

Not long after my diagnosis my parents enrolled in NAMI’s Family-to-Family support group and class and it was reiterated to them that the most important thing they can do is have patience.

So many families give up on their mentally ill members when the going gets tough and I can tell you, the going will get tough.

It’s important for a family to stick it out though and ride the waves because in time, their son or daughter or brother or sister will improve. It will be a long, slow, many times painful process but the family at the other end of recovery will be so much stronger for it.

Even in cases where the mentally ill family member refuses to accept to accept that they’re sick, the thing they want most is an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on.

If a family is patient with their son, and talks to him with a kind heart, an understanding tone and most of all love, the son will know that he can trust someone, and when you don’t know the difference between reality and your own delusions being able to trust someone is perhaps the most important factor in recovery.

It’s ok to be scared when a family member is ill but with patience and understanding even in the face of fear, there’s a good chance you can bring your family member back from the brink.

I’m under no illusions that I myself might be out there wandering the streets were it not for the support and understanding my family gave me in my most tumultuous times.

Together we navigated not only the illness, but the options that were available to me with meds, benefits and wellness and eight years on, I’m a regular columnist at and The New York Times.

It will be hard to be there for your family member but it will be worth it.

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  1. I really like reading your posts. They make me realize I’m on the right path of understanding my brother’s illness. It’s difficult because I even feel alone. My father doesn’t understand, says he’s being lazy. His worker says she thinks my brother is manipulating and not to feed into it. What about the fear?…fear that the violent thoughts will be acted out? I don’t want to fear my brother, he is a kind soul but I still worry.

    • Hey Cheryl, the fear is rational, I don’t know your brother so I don’t know if there’s that potential. Just know that that notion is overblown by the media and reports of mental illness in school shooters and such. Those are isolated cases and it’s much more likely that your brother could be a victim of violent crime rather than a perpetrator.

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