When mental illness first strikes, family members may deny the person has a continuing illness. During the acute episode family members will be alarmed by what is happening to their loved one. When the episode is over and the family member returns home, everyone will feel a tremendous sense of relief. All involved want to put this painful time in the past and focus on the future. Many times, particularly when the illness is a new phenomenon in the family, everyone may believe that since the person is now doing very well that symptomatic behavior will never return. They may also look for other answers, hoping that the symptoms were caused by some other physical problem or external stressors that can be removed. For example, some families move thinking that a “fresh start” in a new environment will alleviate the problem.
Sometimes, even after some family members do understand the reality of the illness, others do not. Those who do accept the truth find that they must protect the ill person from those who do not and who blame and denigrate the ill person for unacceptable behavior and lack of achievement. Obviously, this leads to tension within the family, and isolation and loss of meaningful relationships with those who are not supportive of the ill person.
Families may also have little knowledge about mental illness. They may believe that it is a condition that is totally disabling. This is not so. However, it is difficult to know where to turn to get information. Without information to help families learn to cope with mental illness, families can become very pessimistic about the future. The illness seems to control their destiny rather than the family, including the ill member, gaining control by learning how to manage the illness and to plan for the future. It is imperative that the family find sources of information that help them to understand how the illness affects the person. They need to know that with medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both, the majority of people do return to a normal life style. It is also imperative that the family finds sources of support for themselves. In both cases, clergy can play a critical role in identifying resources in the community that can help the family build the knowledge base that will give them the tools to assist their loved one and themselves.