Facing Mental Health Within the Family
Cheryl Durgin is a volunteer with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), as well as a trained facilitator of their family education program, and a licensed volunteer with the International Fellowship of Chaplains, ministering in areas of critical incident stress, grief and loss, and trauma. She is currently on staff at LifePoint with LPKids, but over her 25 years here, she served in a variety of volunteer and professional roles within the church and community. Both Cheryl’s parents and her son have biological illnesses of the brain, providing personal experience in addition to her training and expertise in the field.
In this installment of our Well With My Soul series, mental health professionals that are connected to LifePoint will be sharing truths about mental wellness. This week, Cheryl Durgin shares wisdom regarding how to address mental wellness with our children and within our families.
How should parents begin to talk about mental wellness with their children?
Cheryl: One thing that is important to remember is that shame + fear + silence = stigma. In order to break the stigma of mental illness, especially within our families, it’s important to engage our children in conversations about it from an early age. Doing so negates the shame, fear, and silence.
Just as children learn about any other body part and its function, they need to learn about the brain as well. Part of the function of the brain is to handle our thoughts and feelings and if our brain cannot do that properly, it has nothing to do with our character, willpower, or intelligence.
Mental illness can impact a person of any age, any lifestyle, or any culture. Statistically, it is so prevalent – one in five are currently living with a mental illness. Just as we need to teach our children how to understand what mental illness is, we also want them to be aware and to know the signs. Fifty percent of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14 and 75% begin by age 24.
What are some things you can do to help a loved one or family member better come to terms with any mental health issues?
Cheryl: Mental health can be a difficult thing to navigate alone. Let your loved one know that you understand that their issue is outside of their control. Accompany them to appointments. Change the way that you listen. Listen reflectively and actively – do not contradict or correct what they say. Whatever they are experiencing is very real to them, regardless of your ability to understand.
Support is critical in the journey of mental health, and that’s why it’s so important that our children understand it. Even if it never impacts them personally, understanding mental illness will prepare them to be compassionate to those who are struggling
How can we be supportive about mental illness if it’s not something that we are comfortable with or have an understanding of?
Cheryl: It is common to feel afraid of what we don’t understand, and that fear can lead to silence, shame, and stigma. The most powerful thing you can do as the support person to a loved one struggling with mental illness is to educate yourself. The more we understand, the less scary the situation becomes.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a helpline for generalized questions as does the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). NAMI also offers a virtual or in person class specifically for parents of children with mental illness.
What should we do when the person with mental illness is in denial or uncooperative to seeking help?
Cheryl: Anosognosia is a common symptom of certain mental illnesses that leaves the person suffering unaware of their own mental health condition or unable to perceive their condition accurately. It is not the same thing as denial. Those with anosognosia do not understand that they are ill, and this can cause obstacles in engaging the patient in their own treatment and recovery.
According to psychologist Dr. Xavier Amador, a leading expert on anosognosia, it is not a reasonable goal to convince the patient that they are ill when they feel that they are not. Rather, the focus should be on what you want for the person (treatment, skill development, healthy relationships, a fuller life) and you should work to facilitate those goals. Dr. Amador advises that the best chance of success is finding strength in agreement with the patient, not argument. This is the main philosophy behind the LEAP method of treatment – Listen, Empathize, Agree, Partner (Amador). You can learn more about Dr. Amador and LEAP here.
What should we do if/when we feel that a loved one is at risk for harming themselves or others??
Cheryl: While this can be a scary and uncomfortable topic, it is very crucial that we don’t avoid it. If you suspect a loved one has thoughts of harming themselves or others, do not be afraid to start the conversation. Ask direct and poignant questions like: “Are you thinking about suicide? Do you have a plan? Do you know how you would do it? When was the last time you thought about suicide?”
If they have developed a plan, that is an immediate mental health crisis and you should take them to a hospital emergency room or call 911. It is important to notify the operator that it is a psychiatric emergency and ask for help from the county’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Team and/or police officers trained in crisis intervention. You can ask police officers to turn off their lights/sirens when approaching to protect privacy and to prevent escalation.
A mental health crisis is where mental wellness and the law meet to make sure that everyone is safe and protected. In a situation where someone you care about is putting themselves or others at risk, the most loving thing you can do is to call for help.
Join us next week when we’ll be speaking with Carolyn Hunsicker about the impact of mental health on our relationships, specifically our marriages.
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