Supporting Siblings

Cait was sixteen when her brother Jay left for college. They always had a very close relationship. During their childhood they would spend time fishing together and going to the park where she would fetch his baseballs in an effort to help him fulfill his dream to become a professional baseball player. There was a tremendous amount of excitement when Jay received an offer to play baseball in college.

Cait was seventeen when Jay was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her whole world fell apart. Cait’s parents were back and forth visiting Jay eventually bringing him home and subsequently back and forth to various specialists, treatments, and therapist appointments. Cait’s parents slid into their own anxiety and sadness and did not notice that Cait’s college applications did not get completed. Cait was at a place where she no longer cared about college because in her mind, it was a place where people went to get sick.

“We practitioners need to be attuned to not only our clients but to their network as well. What hurts one hurts all”

When someone is affected by mental illness, their loved ones are affected as well, often suffering silently like Cait did over Jay. Our focus becomes so much on the person in the center of concern that we overlook the silent sufferers. Although different, family members have a parallel, shared, experience like their loved one. It is in these moments that parents often get the beginning of support and advice – sometimes welcomed, sometimes overwhelming – from friends and loved ones. Siblings however, are often overlooked. We practitioners need to be attuned to not only our clients but to their network as well. What hurts one hurts all. If you are a loved one that has been touched by mental illness, whose life has been turned upside down, and feels like it will never be the same, don’t lose Hope. Start with self care and self healing.

Continue doing things in life that bring you pleasure and make you feel good. Taking care of yourself and giving yourself love and attention doesn’t mean that you’re being selfish or not caring about your loved one who is going through a terrible time. You can remain attuned to your love ones by taking care of yourself first and foremost. Cait and her family have moved on to healing and I hope you do too. There are a lot of wonderful resources for families.

Below are some suggestions for education and support:

Family Therapy: To find a therapist

Institute for Dialogic Practice –

Support networks:

National Alliance for Mental Illness-

American Psychological Association-  (How to cope when a loved one has a serious mental illness)

Supporting Families on the Road to Recovery: From Isolation to Inclusion

The experience of having a mental illness is often isolating. This isolation occurs for various reasons – whether repeated hospitalization resulting in a person falling further and further off the path they originally set for themselves, debilitating symptoms that make activities of daily living increasingly difficult to accomplish, or the enormity of the experience simply feeling too complex to describe adequately to family and friends. Yet despite their feeling of aloneness, most clients are not actually alone in their experience. Family members — siblings, parents, spouses and children — can and often do share the feelings of confusion, isolation and loss that can accompany an unexpected diagnosis of mental illness.

It is crucial that family members receive the support and education they need, both for their own well-being and for the well-being of their loved one. This support comes in various forms. Most often, it consists of information from health care providers. However, while facts are important for loved ones to understand — symptoms, associated behaviors, useful medications, treatments — facts do not address the feelings of fear, grief and shame that families often experience.

Family members benefit greatly from knowing they aren’t alone as they struggle to understand what their loved one is experiencing. They also need guidance in responding proactively and thoughtfully to a life thrown off-course by mental illness. They need access to professionals who can continue the conversation after a loved one receives a diagnosis and medication and has returned to their life. And they need to be able to talk openly about their experiences with people who understand what they’re going through. Most importantly, they and their loved one need support in learning how to talk to each other and navigate this new life-course together.

One of the first things we do at Ellenhorn upon admission is invite the family and client to meet with our team. This casual meet-and-greet is an opportunity to connect directly, in a non-clinical way, with the people who will be working with the client and family. Gathering over coffee and a light breakfast, or lunch, is the beginning of the creation of a community space and the sense of a shared experience between the team and the family in need of support.

This gathering is often the team’s first opportunity to begin to understand the kind of support the family will find most useful. From receiving weekly updates from the primary clinician to having regular face-to-face Open Dialogue meetings, or participating in structured therapy sessions, families are welcomed into the process of recovery.

Besides the individual supports put in place by a client’s team, there are opportunities throughout the year for families of Ellenhorn clients to meet one another. These meetings promote connections among families previously struggling in isolation to support a loved one. Our Family Weekends provide the combination of clinical education about specific illnesses, personal stories of recovery and the chance to forge relationships with other families that is often needed to break out of the world of isolation and illness into one of connection and recovery.