Although many people think that mental illness does not affect "normal" families, scientists have found that this isn't the case. In reality, in any given year more than 1 in 4 adults experience symptoms of mental illness -- which may range from a mild impairment to a significantly disabling condition -- according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Mental health conditions may develop at any time and occur in adults and children of all ages and backgrounds. 

Mental illnesses can be extremely complex and difficult to recognize because they are often masked by other conditions, such as developmental issues, substance abuse, or physical problems. Learning as much as you can about these disorders will help you cope if someone close to you is diagnosed with a mental illness. 

What is mental illness?

Mental illness refers to a wide range of disorders that affect how people think, feel, and act. Mental illness usually makes it difficult or impossible for people to cope with the routines and challenges of everyday life, such as adjusting to change or relating to other people. 

There are many different kinds of mental illnesses, ranging from mild to severe. These disorders may have a variety of causes, including genetics, chemical imbalances in the brain, family or life issues or influences, or stress caused by a painful event or series of events, or a combination of these factors. Mental illness can "run in families"; it may also occur in families that do not have a history of mental illness. 

With proper diagnosis and treatment, many people find relief from their symptoms and go on to hold jobs, raise families, and lead happy and rewarding lives. For others mental illness remains a lifelong challenge. Some of the more common serious behavioural health disorders are: 

  • major depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • anxiety disorders
  • schizophrenia
  • personality disorders


Signs of mental illness in adults

Mental illness can be difficult to identify because some of its warning signs may be caused by other conditions, such as a physical illness, stress, or side effects of certain medications. If someone in your family has a mental illness, it's important to seek help promptly so that a doctor can determine the cause of the problem. Signs that an adult needs professional help include: 

  • confused or irrational thinking
  • severe or prolonged depression, low mood
  • extreme moodiness or mood swings
  • withdrawal from family or friends
  • dramatic changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • strong and persistent feelings of anger (with or without threats of violence)
  • delusions or hallucinations
  • serious trouble managing everyday activities
  • talk or thoughts of suicide
  • denial of obvious problems
  • substance abuse
  • unexplained physical illnesses


Signs of mental illness in children and teenagers

Adults sometimes fail to recognize the symptoms of mental illness in children or teenagers, thinking that the problems result from "growing pains." Signs that a child or teen needs professional help include: 


  • persistent nightmares
  • dramatic changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • declining school performance
  • school avoidance
  • defiant or aggressive behaviour
  • hyperactivity (or overactivity)
  • sadness, excessive crying
  • excessive fear of or anxiety about everyday activities (such as going to bed or school)
  • intentionally hurting other people or pets
  • temper tantrums (more severe or frequent than those experienced by other children the same age)

Older children and teenagers

  • substance abuse
  • frequent outbursts of anger or overreacting
  • talk or thoughts of suicide, or of hurting other people
  • unexplained changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • trouble managing everyday activities
  • unexplained physical illnesses
  • extreme moodiness or mood swings
  • withdrawal from family or friends
  • intense fear of weight gain/excessive weight loss
  • persistent and very negative moods (often accompanied by feelings of hopelessness)
  • defiance of authority (which may include theft, truancy, or vandalism)

It's important to realize that many of the symptoms listed above can also be a normal part of adolescent development. But, if the intensity and the duration of the symptoms seem extreme or are making it difficult for a teenager to function or cope with everyday life, they could be signs of a serious problem. Consult your child's pediatrician first. He or she can assess the issues your child is experiencing to rule out medical or developmental conditions. 

If you suspect that a family member has a mental illness

If you suspect that a family member has a mental illness, take action quickly and keep these points in mind: 

  • Trust your instincts. Remember that drug abuse and similar addictions may mask mental illness. An adult or a teenager may be using drugs to try to overcome the pain or escape the problems caused by a mental disorder. A family member may attribute her mood or behaviour changes to menopause, even though her symptoms are much more severe and persistent than those typically experienced by women. Trust your instincts if a relative's explanations don't make sense to you.
  • Seek help promptly. Many families hesitate to seek help for a mental illness out of fear of what other people may think. This kind of delay can prolong the pain of someone you love. If you're worried about hostility or insensitive remarks from others, ask your general practitioner to refer you to a family therapist or another professional who can help you deal with the responses.
  • Don't blame yourself. Some mental illnesses are so complex that the exact cause of the disorder may never be known. Instead of blaming yourself for a problem, learn all you can about how to help your family member. Try to focus on moving forward instead of dwelling on the past.
  • Remember that mental illness is treatable. Medical advances have greatly improved the outlook for many people with mental disorders. Depending on the nature of your relative's illness, specialists may recommend medication, counselling or other forms of therapy, or a combination of all of these. Keep in mind that specialists may need to try several approaches to find the right one for a particular person and that if medication is recommended, your relative may eventually be able to go off medication or switch to a lower dose.


Coping with daily challenges

 When you live with someone who has a mental illness, it can be hard to know what to expect. You may find it easier to cope with the challenges if you: 

  • Try to be patient. Your family member probably can't control his or her actions and may find them more painful than you do. If your relative has an outburst in public, try to move to a private location until the episode is over. Talk with a professional about strategies that you can use to cope if such events recur.
  • Look into respite care, especially if the mental illness is severe. Respite care is any kind of care that gives you a break from your caregiving responsibilities. You might get respite care from a cousin who helps out once a week or a home health aide who moves in when you need extra help or have to take a business trip. Some long-term care facilities offer respite care, with a set minimum and maximum amount of time the person can stay.
  • Learn all you can about your family member's condition. Educating yourself about the disorder will give you a sense of what you can control and what you can't. If you aren't sure where to find information, ask a librarian for help. Or, visit the websites of the Canadian Mental Health Association (, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (, or the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health ( where you'll find information about many common mental health conditions. If a doctor or mental health professional has diagnosed your loved one with a specific illness, search online using the name of the illness and the words "organization in Canada" or "association in Canada." Virtually all disorders have a national advocacy organization dedicated to supporting people diagnosed with that mental illness.
  • Join a support group. Joining a group of people who are facing similar challenges can give you a safe place to share your concerns and get fresh ideas on how to cope. You can find a group through your local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (, which has more than 120 branches and a nationwide network of support groups for families of people with mental illnesses. You may also be able to find an online support group if that suits you.
  • Seek help when you need it. It's easy to begin to feel overwhelmed when you love someone who seems to require almost constant attention. Talking to an experienced counsellor (such as a therapist or social worker) may give you the fresh perspective you need to continue to cope effectively. You may be able to find a counsellor through a doctor, clergy member, or family-services agency. The program that provided this publication can help you find the kind of help that you or your family member needs.

Caring for someone with a mental illness

Caring for someone with a mental illness can be stressful. Challenges that at first seem easy to handle may become more difficult over time. You may be able to avoid potential problems if you do the following: 

  • Make time for yourself. Devoting all your time to someone else can leave you feeling exhausted or resentful. Making time for yourself can help you avoid burnout and caregiver stress. Use your resources and support systems to help you maintain the health, energy, and optimism you need to keep meeting your challenges. Even if you spend just a few minutes each day taking a relaxing walk or talking on the phone with a sympathetic friend, you'll benefit from making sure that your life includes activities that leave you feeling calm and refreshed.
  • Don't neglect other family members. Although someone with a mental illness may require a lot of care, pay attention to the needs of others, too. Children may feel angry about a sibling's illness and blame a parent for the condition, or blame the child for not getting better. Or, one member of a couple may resent the attention the other pays to a child, and a marriage may suffer. If you sense that problems are developing, ask your doctor to refer you to a professional who can work with your family members individually or as a group.
  • Plan for in-patient care. At times your family member may enter a hospital or residential facility. Specialists may want to adjust your relative's medication under close supervision or believe that your relative would benefit from receiving several kinds of therapy in one setting. Plan ahead to figure out what adjustments you would need to make in your routines. Anticipating some of the changes will make the transition smoother for everybody in the family.
  • Take a long-term view. Learning to live with and managing a mental illness may take months or even years. Try not to be discouraged by slow progress or temporary setbacks. Remember that medical advances may provide breakthroughs or solutions that you can't foresee. Staying connected with mental health organizations -- and with families of other people with mental illness -- will help you see the "big picture" and find the energy you need to keep providing good care.




© LifeWorks Canada Ltd 2017