Mental illness doesn't just affect the person who is struggling - it also has a profound impact on the whole family. This isn’t because it’s anyone’s fault. Symptoms of mental illness make it difficult to maintain close relationships.
When a loved one is struggling with their mental health, it can leave family members feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to turn, especially if their loved one refuses treatment.
One thing is clear. As a family member, you play a role in your loved one's recovery. Which means you need support, too.
The most widespread option for families is support groups. Support groups offer a safe space for families to connect with others facing similar challenges. It can be difficult to decide if joining a support group is the right option for you and your family. Understanding what to expect from support groups and learning about different options can help you decide what’s right for you.
Benefits of Mental Health Support Groups for Families
Gain insight. There are unique challenges families face when their loved one has a mental illness. Families learn from others what they have tried, what works, and what doesn’t work. It’s also a great place to learn new coping skills.
Mental and emotional well-being. It’s normal for families to experience a range of emotions on this journey, including sadness, frustration, guilt, and fear. Support groups allow a space for processing emotions in a non-judgmental environment. It can feel safer to share emotions with families who can relate.
Reduce stigma. Stigma can come from people close to you including other family members, friends, and coworkers. Often stigma shows up as feelings of shame and can lead to isolation. In support groups, families are encouraged to talk about mental illness openly and honestly. Together families look toward avenues of hope,which can help reduce stigma.
Reduce feelings of isolation. Family members often turn inward when trying to deal with supporting their loved one. Many times it feels like other people really don’t understand. Support groups show members they are not alone. They also provide a supportive environment to discuss challenges and successes.
Acceptance and understanding. It can be difficult for families to come to terms with their loved one’s challenges. Family members may even feel ashamed or embarrassed about their loved one’s condition. Support groups offer a place for families to begin to accept and understand what their loved one is going through.
What Families Can Expect From Support Groups
Support groups offer a space for people with similar challenges to share openly with each other without fear of judgment. Although support groups vary in many ways, there are some aspects of the experience that are consistent.
Privacy and confidentiality
Support groups strive to maintain privacy and confidentiality for their members. For example, it’s common for support groups to only use first names to protect privacy. However, the level of privacy and confidentiality can vary depending on the group and its policies. It’s important that there is a sense of trust in support groups. You can ask a group specifically about their policies of privacy and confidentiality.
Sharing of experiences
Support groups are known for being a place to talk openly. Members are encouraged to share their experiences, challenges, and triumphs. Members share coping strategies and resources. How often and how much members are expected to share can differ from group to group.
Depending on the support group, there might be information shared about diagnoses and treatments. However, the goal of support groups is typically not to formally educate families on their loved one’s condition or to give advice.
Connection and sense of belonging
Support groups are generally a safe space to be vulnerable. Families share experiences that they might not feel comfortable sharing anywhere else. Members are able to provide encouragement and validate each other’s feelings and experiences because they’ve been there. Overall, families feel more connected because they feel less isolated, less stigmatized, and more understood.
Parents of Adult Children with Mental Illness
The most common family members to attend support groups are parents, and to be frank, it's mostly mothers. Other key family members and friends play crucial roles in their loved ones' recovery, but the reliance on "moms'' for support is undeniable.
Finding the right balance between supporting their child and allowing them to be independent can be especially difficult for parents. Support groups offer a place for parents to take care of themself while also learning to balance giving support to their adult child.
Different Support Groups Are Different
While most support groups generally offer a supportive environment, no two support groups are exactly alike. The right support group for you will depend on your unique needs and preferences. Some of the main differences in support groups are their focus, size, structure, leadership style, and accessibility.
Different Types of Support Groups
When choosing a support group, families have the option of choosing a group led by a peer or by a mental health clinician. There is also the option of choosing between an in-person group or online group.
Clinician-led Support Groups vs. Peer-led Support Groups
Clinician-led support groups are led by a licensed mental health professional. Peer-led support groups are led by individuals who have similar challenges as the group members.
Peer-led groups have the advantage that everyone present has a shared experience including the group leader. This can foster an intimate and supportive environment. Peer-led groups are also typically cost-effective options since they are often free or low-cost. However, some peer leaders may not have any professional training, which can lead to more variability in the experience.
Many support groups led by mental health clinicians offer additional expertise and structure. However, they may lack the sense of shared experience and community that can be found in peer-led groups. Clinician-led support groups are less widely available than peer-led support groups and are mostly accessible as an addition to ongoing treatment of a loved one. This option is therefore difficult to access if a family member refuses treatment.
At Akin, we have sessions led by peer experts. Peer experts bring the same sense of understanding as other peer led groups, but with additional expertise and structure.
In-person Support Groups vs. Online Support Groups
In-person support groups can feel more personal because they happen face-to face. Families typically need to factor in additional time for in-person groups to include travel time. Accessibility is a factor for many families, especially those who live in rural or remote areas or have mobility issues. Some groups might not be within a reasonable traveling distance.
Nonetheless, in-person support groups by their nature foster local connections and knowledge sharing. It is difficult to assess the extent to which any given in-person group offers evidence-based information, but there is no question that local expertise has unique value.
Many online support groups offer greater flexibility in terms of scheduling. Members can participate at a time that is convenient for them. Some online support groups also offer more anonymity since not all require sharing names or having cameras on. Online support groups have more potential to be more diverse, but that depends on each individual group.
Without the ability to fully see body language and facial expressions the experience can feel less personal than in-person support groups. Even so, online groups have been vital for getting families support when they need it most.
Additional Options for Families Seeking Support
The goal of family psychoeducation is to help family members increase understanding and awareness of mental illness, reduce stigma, promote self-care, and provide family members with tools and skills to better cope with the challenges that may arise.
Psychoeducation can help families with crucial information about diagnoses and symptoms, treatment options, navigating the mental health care system, legal concerns, and crisis planning. It can be a valuable tool for families that can help to promote recovery and help families know they are doing their best.
How educational sessions are structured varies by program. Some include group discussions which can offer similar benefits as support groups. There are also practical exercises that help families create plans and practice skills.
At Akin, our family program combines psychoeducation, support, and expert guidance. In addition to learning about mental illness and recovery, families in our program learn strategies for communicating, problem-solving, setting boundaries, and taking care of themselves.
Family psychoeducation can be an effective way to support families and can lead to improved outcomes for both families and their loved ones.
Family therapy is structured to work with the family as a whole, rather than with individual family members. It can address a wide range of issues, including conflict between family members, mental illness, trauma, big transitions, and help families cope with a family member's diagnosis and symptoms. Families can also ask their loved one’s provider about having a session with family members while their loved one is not present. It can be valuable for family members to share information and concerns with their loved ones' providers and get guidance on their role in supporting recovery.
Coordinated Specialty Care
Coordinated Specialty Care (CSC) programs are designed to provide early intervention and personalized care for individuals experiencing a first episode of psychosis. CSC programs are comprehensive, evidence-based treatment programs and can include individual therapy, family therapy, medication management, case management, employment support, and psychoeducation. The goal of these programs is to help individuals achieve and maintain recovery, reduce the risk of relapse, and improve overall functioning. These programs have some of the best evidence for long-term outcomes in disorders of psychosis and the family component of the program is considered essential to the model.
Family members are typically the first to see signs of psychosis and these programs are therefore great resources for families to reach out to.
Deciding What’s Right For You
Support groups offer an opportunity to share experiences, learn from others, and a sense of connection. Beyond support groups, there are other options families can consider including family psychoeducation, coordinated specialty care, family therapy, or a combination of interventions.
Finding support, especially from people who understand, can be transformative for families during their loved ones’ journey. Ultimately, the decision to choose one option over the other will depend on your family’s needs. Getting some type of support is crucial for helping family members feel more empowered, more resilient, and more hopeful about the future.