Some useful information about mental illness:

  • At some stage in life one in five New Zealanders will experience mental illness.
  • There are a number of different Mental Illnesses and they affect different people in different ways.
  • Some people experience periodic recurrence of illness, others have only one experience while yet others experience enduring symptoms.
  • It is believed that mental illness is triggered by a range or combination of factors. These include genetic, physical, social, psychological, socioeconomic and environmental influences which can result in a major change in a person’s behaviour, emotions and thinking.
  • Effective treatment involves a variety of approaches including education, counseling, medication and social support. Outcomes can be enhanced when family/whanau and friends are educated and involved in the recovery process.
  • Mental illness can be treated and the best outcomes occur when treatment takes place in the early stages of the illness.

Mental Illnesses include:

  • Mood disorders e.g. depression and bipolar.
  • Psychotic disorders e.g. schizophrenia
  • Eating disorders e.g. anorexia nervosa and bulimia
  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Often these illnesses are caused by or complicated by drug or alcohol abuse.
  • How can mental illness affect family/whanau and friends?

When a person experiences a mental illness, families often face a range emotions such as anxiety, anger, worry, confusion and fear. Family and friends may be unsure how to act, or who to turn to for help. They may also experience social isolation through being reluctant to discuss what is happening in their usual circles.

Families may also grieve and feel anxious and uncertain about the future and what it will mean for their loved one’s education, employment and quality of life. There may also be concerns about what it will mean for themselves and other family/whanau members.

Families often question ‘‘why is this happening” – it is common for them to blame themselves, or to blame one another when a loved one is affected by mental illness.


What can family/whanau and friends do to help?

If you are worried that a family member or friend is in the early stages of a mental illness, or you feel that something is not quite right, there are warning signs you should be aware of:

  • Increased feelings of anxiety, panic and fear
  • Changes to usual energy level
  • Changes in mood (highs and lows)
  • Disrupted or changed sleep patterns
  • Deterioration of school work or work performance
  • Becoming withdrawn from friends, family and colleagues
  • Mental illness can be hard to diagnose in the early stages because there are other things that can cause similar changes. Discuss your concerns with your GP or other health professional and request a general check up.


Information, education, support and advocacy

Family/Whanau who are well informed and supported are better able to support their unwell family member. Local Mental Health Services have information available on mental illness and treatment options including medication.

Inclusion and participation in treatment and Recovery by Family/Whanau supports best outcome for the person experiencing unwellness. This involvement can help reduce the impact of the likelihood future relapse or hospitalization.

Your local Supporting Families/Atareira family/whanau worker can also put you in touch with other families who have a loved one experiencing mental illness. Many families find it helps to share their challenges and talk things through with others who understand.


Practical suggestions to help

Symptoms such as mood swings, confused thinking, hallucinations, delusions, or panic and anxiety can be threatening and perplexing to your family member with mental illness and those around them.

A person who experiences these frightening symptoms may become seriously depressed, withdrawn and maybe even suicidal. Occasionally a person will display uncharacteristic levels of anger and violence.

Here are some suggestions to help:

  1. Reduce the level of stress. While stress does not cause disorders such as psychosis and bipolar illness, it can make the symptoms worse.
  2. Try to maintain calm. No one responds well to criticism, nagging, or raised voices.
  3. Take time out if you need. Even small breaks can be helpful to everyone.
  4. Speak quietly, clearly and one at a time. Sometimes the illness makes a person excessively sensitive to noise levels, or unable to sort out complicated discussions.
  5. Aim to develop a good relationship with your family member’s mental health team.
  6. Seek support for yourself. Maintain your social contacts as best you can.
  7. Take good care of yourself. Eat well, get sufficient sleep, take some exercise and be aware of your own stress levels. Access local services to support you in your caring role e.g. your G.P., counselling services, complimentary therapies.
  8. If there is an immediate danger to self or others contact 111 for Police assistance or your local emergency mental health service.