Mental illness in the family
- Some answers to the most commonly asked questions
You are not alone
Being the carer of someone with a mental
health problem is not easy, but there are ways of coping.
There are places you can go for help and support
Useful support services
One of the great values of support organizations
is that they give you access to other people who understand
the hardships faced by those affected by mental illness,
whether as a carer or a sufferer.
A phone call to ARAFMI is one way to
access the information you need, either by talking to
their professional or volunteer staff, by browsing the
library or by joining a support group. The ARAFMI library
contains a good selection of books and informative pamphlets
about the most common mental disorders.
There are a number of professionals
who can give you advice and help:
A general practitioner (family doctor)
A case manager
A social worker
A community mental health nurse
An occupational therapist
Carers must accept that any adult has
the right to refuse treatment. Many people who seem to
be behaving strangely might not feel there is anything
wrong with them, and can get quite upset by the suggestion
that they have a problem
Your own family doctor is the first
person to consult if you think there is a problem that
needs more intense treatment or assessment.
Usually the specialist is a psychiatrist,
a psychologist or a counsellor. Psychiatrists are doctors
that specialize in the area of mental illness. Psychologists
train in the behavioral sciences, not medicine. Counsellors
come from backgrounds like social work
It is wise to ask your doctor to explain
the reasons for the selection of a particular specialist.
If you are unhappy with the specialist initially chosen,
you have the right to ask for a second opinion - provided,
of course, that the patient agrees.
You can ask for an interview with the
case manager, social worker or nurse at the hospital.
You will find that their experience enables them to give
Information about the illness
One of the problems you may face in
the early stages is the difficulty of finding out exactly
what is wrong with your family member or friend. If you
are finding it difficult to get clear answers from your
doctor or psychiatrist, remember that there are a variety
of possible reasons:
It may be because the psychiatrist has
not yet been able to make a positive diagnosis
It may be because the patient has not
given permission for the psychiatrist to talk to you.
It may be because the psychiatrist is
rightly cautious about attaching labels which may be wrong
and can have profound consequences.
If the psychiatrist is able to give
a clear diagnosis it can help in a number of ways. Primarily
it gives some peace of mind, but it also helps in practical
ways; it helps in accessing social security benefits and
makes it easier for you to find information on their illness.
Medication and possible side
The drugs used in the treatment of a
mental illness are often powerful and may have side effects.
A health professional should take the time to explain
to the carer and patient why a particular drug has been
prescribed, what it is expected to do, and what side effects
and danger signs (if any) to watch for
You have the right to this information
and if it is not given or you do not understand it, ask
for clarification. For further information about the drugs
commonly used in the treatment of mental illness, booklets
should be available from the hospital, support group or
sometimes at your local library.
Admission to hospital
Some mental illnesses, like physical
illnesses, are best treated in a hospital. The treatment
may take place in a psychiatric unit of a general hospital
specializing in the treatment of psychiatric disorders.
The ideal of going to a 'psychiatric
hospital' is still frightening to many people. A visit
to a hospital will soon dispel those fears.
There are two ways to gain admittance
to a psychiatric hospital. If your family member is well
enough to understand the need for hospitalization, they
can be admitted as a voluntary patient. In a case where
the family member does not agree to be hospitalized, there
are strict legal guidelines for admittance, and it is
best that you seek advice from a doctor.
However, if the person is in danger
of harming themselves or others you may call the Psychiatric
Crisis Team (see Mental Health Services in the phone book)
or the police.
Admission to a psychiatric hospital
is no different from any other hospital. The person arrives
at the Psychiatric Emergency Centre (PEC), various forms
are filled out, and then the person is assessed for admission.
This is the time to ask the admission staff to explain
anything you are uncertain about. Before you leave, find
out who to contact to get ongoing information about the
What are your rights as a carer?
As a carer you have rights as well as
responsibilities, set out in The Mental Health Statement
of Rights and Responsibilities (1991). Some of those rights
The right to comprehensive information,
education, training and support to facilitate understanding,
advocacy and care of a relative or friend.
The right to help with your own difficulties
which may be generated by the process of caring or acting
as advocate for someone with a mental illness.
The right to seek further opinions regarding
diagnosis and care for the consumer.
Look after yourself
Caring for someone with a mental illness
can be stressful. To do it well you must see to your own
needs as well as those of your family member or friend.
Self care is the essence of the ARAFMI message. Be patient
Don’t be afraid to reach out
Be good to yourself
Create small successes
Take some risks
Dream a little
Trust your own judgment