A diagnosis of a biological ailment, such as cancer or diabetes, is easier for a family to understand in comparison to a mental health diagnosis.
My parent’s diagnosis of depression was not clearly explained to my sibling or me. I did not understand that it was the dark depths of my parent’s depressive episodes that kept them in bed—not that they didn’t love me. I did not understand there was no dinner some nights because the depression suppressed my parent’s appetite—not because they didn’t want to feed me. I didn’t know that when my parent had a migraine, it was because of the depressive symptoms—not because I was talking too much. I also did not realize that when my parent felt ill, and therefore missed a day or two of work, that those missed work days would enhance the financial stress my parent, and thus I, would experience once the following paycheck arrived in the mail.
I was not alone in these experiences.
A mental illness affects 1 in four American families. This statistic makes sense once we take into consideration that 1 in 17 American adults have a mental illness diagnosis, such as depression, an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Many more people may be undiagnosed, for a number of reasons. These statistics include fathers, mothers, grandparents, sons, daughters, and siblings.
These statistics do not include the very children who are both directly and indirectly impacted emotionally, psychologically, and sometimes physically within the family.
As an adolescent, I associated my parent’s behavior with how much they loved me. If I had knowledge about what depression was and how it would be affecting my parent at a younger age, the information would have enhanced my understanding of the illness and increased my compassion for my parent. Being able to identify my parent’s depressive symptoms in my adolescent years would have allowed me to differentiate between the parent I truly loved from the depression I began to despise.
Mental illness also impacts families on a broader scope regarding how the family interacts with systems such as employment and pharmacology, to name a few.
The days my parent didn’t go to work, due to not having the energy or ability to get out of bed, prevented the paychecks from being the same amount as their fellow employee. A smaller paycheck meant less money for food, school supplies, and the requirement to decide paying the mortgage or the electric bill. Although the smaller paychecks allowed my sibling and I to spend more time with our grandparents, I soon began to rely on them for meals and laundry soap.
The smaller paychecks also impacted my parent’s interactions with the pharmaceutical business. After paying the necessary bills and buying groceries, some times there was no money available to purchase their antidepressant medication. The missed days from work also increased my parent’s stress level. The consistent high stress levels my parent experienced also negatively impacted their physical health; a high release of cortisol over time decreases an individual’s immune system efficiency. Hence, my parent would also become physically sick and miss more days from work. This cycle could not last forever.
Mental illness, such as depression, also impacts the relationships within the family. As I nurtured a level of understanding and a compassion for my parent, I witnessed the dismantling of some relationships within the immediate family. The relationships suffered from a lack of knowledge in combination with combating communication styles.
As I attempted to demonstrate, mental illness, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, impacts the family. Even though matters within my family are not perfect, I am glad to say that they have improved over time and from an immense amount of understanding from all members involved.
Mental illness affects each family differently and similarly. Each family is different because each family is its own entity. The similarity is in the process; the process in which families adapt to change and challenges by building resiliency. The ways an individual comes to accept a diagnosis (physical or psychological) does not end with the individual.
Rather, the process continues with the family. The individual does not progress towards recovery alone; the family moves towards recovery together, as one.
A diagnosis is not an end-all; it is an opportunity for the family to grow.