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There are two scenarios to consider.
In the first instance, what if you have a family member who is the one in five people across Australia experiencing a mental health concern? This may be an anxiety disorder, depression or substance abuse problem (in order of their commonness). It is also much more likely to occur in younger people, so you might be a parent, sibling or extended family member. You might be thinking that in a role of carer or supporter, you shouldn’t have any complaints or issues yourself. Yet knowing how to support, and what is fair and reasonable to include in the role of supporter, is surprisingly complicated. You may feel you have to overlook things you find unacceptable; you might be asked to keep secrets or put up with behaviours below your bottom line. You may be asked not to do a whole range of things in case it upsets the family member, and find yourself with a very restricted life. Family members are a crucial resource for someone with a mental health issue, but only if you can stay mentally healthy along the way.
At Relationships Australia NSW we see people who have kept their questions and concerns to themselves, suffering in silence, believing that they are being loyal and protective. Accidently they may in fact be getting in the way of their loved one seeking professional help, ultimately suffering with the symptoms for much longer than they need to. Carer’s own mental health can suffer, along with their life satisfaction. While wanting to be supportive, resentments can creep in. It is really important to get information about how to help your family member and to help yourself, with many resources now on line, in organisations like Relationships Australia, The Black Dog Institute, and with the guidance of your GP.
In the second instance, you may be having relationship difficulties yourself. Maybe your relationship is troubled, you have questions about its future, you have problems with the kids, with in-laws or elderly parents. Later in life, childhood issues and old family patterns can come back to bite us. Big life changes such as a bereavement, serious illness, retirement or job loss, can all take very painful tolls, and others can want you to “move on” faster than you feel able. You might be told to “get over it” or “look on the bright side”. Whether it is a sudden life crisis or a long standing stressor or disputes, it can lead to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression and stress. Again, out of a hope that it is just a “bad patch” or telling yourself family life is full of ups and downs, you might suffer for far too long, and sadly this can entrench problems and push them past the point where change can occur. Often at Relationships Australia we hear the comment “if only we had got help sooner”.
We hear a lot more about mental health in the media now, and so there is a great deal more social awareness. However, this does not necessarily lead to people getting help. It is all too easy to think that this relates to other people, so much worse off than ourselves. However, talking with a professional who is neutral and where you are free to speak your mind, is very liberating. Sometimes getting some new information, considering the issues from new angles, even getting out of our own way, can really provide some new direction and hope for the future.
Families are our greatest resource. At their best they are at our back, keeping us strong and resilient. However, they don’t operate well in isolation. Airing issues, bringing resources and new life to new and old problems, can make the difference in achieving strong mental health for all concerned.
Elisabeth Shaw is a clinical and counselling psychologist, couple and family therapist and CEO at Relationships Australia NSW.
Relationships Australia (NSW) is a leading, independent, not for profit organization, with over 70 years of experience, dedicated to reshaping lives, enhancing relationships within families, workplaces and communities in order to foster personal and social well-being. We provide a range of services including counselling, mediation, and dispute resolution, relationship education, information resources and referral.
To speak to someone call 1300 364 277 today