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What are the possible symptoms of mental illness in family members?

Posted on: December 8, 2023

When a loved one develops mental health problems, it can be an incredibly sad, worrying and stressful time – not to mention challenging. However, as isolating as it can feel, it’s vital to remember that you’re not alone.

All of us have mental health – and all of us can develop poor mental health at any point in our lives. NHS England report that one in four adults, and one in 10 children, experience mental illness. The prevalence of mental health issues means that, for many of us, this number includes our children, siblings, parents, friends and other loved ones. Whether we’re caregivers or concerned family members, supporting and safeguarding the millions of people who experience poor mental health is a key concern.

How can we know if a family member is struggling with mental illness? Are mental health conditions hereditary? And what can we do to support loved ones with their mental health and wellbeing?

What are the signs and symptoms of mental illness?

The UK government lists the most common mental disorders (CMD) as depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorder, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Other mental disorders include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dissociative disorders, eating disorders (ED), body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), personality disorders and psychosis.

While signs and symptoms vary depending on the condition, common signs of mental illness to watch out for in family members – from children to adolescents to adults – include:

Mental health disorders may also present as physical ailments, including headaches, back pain and stomach pain. As mental illness has the potential to affect our thoughts, emotions and behaviours, any changes in how a family member thinks, feels or behaves could be a sign of an underlying disorder.

You may also spot signs of mental ill health in people who are not friends or relatives. In these cases, if you’re worried someone is struggling, you can contact social services and let them know you are concerned about their welfare.

Why is family history of mental illness important?

If you have a family member with a mental health issue, it does not necessarily mean you will also develop it. There are many mental disorders that are caused by a combination of psychological, biological, environmental and genetic factors.

However, there are certain genes and gene variations that signal a greater likelihood of developing one. As the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) puts it, ‘your family health history may be one of your best clues for determining your risk of developing a mental disorder and many other common illnesses. Certain mental disorders tend to run in families, and having a close relative with a mental disorder could mean you are at a higher risk.’

Understanding your potential risk of developing a mental health condition can help you to keep an eye out for early warning signs, as well as take preventative measures to reduce your risk. NIMH suggest speaking with blood relatives to see if you can collect any health information, keeping a record of family health history, speaking with a mental healthcare professional who can support with identifying risk factors and preventative steps, and visiting a genetic counsellor to determine your degree of risk.

What should you do if you identify symptoms of mental illness in family members?

Families, friends and caregivers often face remarkable challenges in providing appropriate support – from emotional to practical to financial – for those with mental illnesses. As the American Psychological Association (APA) note, ‘the burden of care can be substantial, and often lasts a lifetime.’

Supporting someone with their mental health may not be easy. For example, they might not recognise that they need help, or be unable to access it. Firstly, try and have an honest, open and empathetic conversation with them about their mental health, and offer your support and encouragement.

Seeking a referral to a mental health professional, who can support your family member with exploring treatment options, is usually a good starting point. They may require psychotherapy, medication, support groups, or strategies and coping mechanisms that can support them in daily life.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a US-based mental illness advocacy and support organisation, provides plenty of online resources related to supporting and caring for family members with mental health conditions. They cover a number of critical topics, such as:

  • helping your child
  • supporting mental health recovery
  • maintaining healthy relationships
  • taking care of yourself
  • crisis prevention.

National helplines and mental health services providers based in the UK – including Samaritans, Mind, Beat, Bipolar UK, Age UK, CALM and Rethink Mental Illness – are also available, depending on the particular situation. Of course, if your family member is considering, or engaging in, self-harm, seek emergency help.

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Our flexible, 100%-online course has been developed to provide individuals without a background in mental health with the skills and expertise to work in the mental health and wellbeing space. You’ll gain in-depth understanding of current issues related to psychology, psychiatry and mental health, as well as knowledge of a wide range of common mental health medical conditions. Learn to support individuals via a positive approach to mental wellbeing, on a British Psychological Society (BPS)-accredited programme.

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