New Year’s Survival Guide: When You Have an Adult Child With a Complex Mental Illness

As the parent of an adult child with a complex mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, or major depression, your life has been far from easy. Over the years you’ve faced many obstacles and heartaches, as you’ve done your best to help your son or daughter cope with their condition.

Your care is an expression of your love. Your desire to offer your help is admirable, but there may be some changes you can make this year that will improve things for everyone in your family.

Complex mental illness makes independent functioning difficult. As much as you might want your adult child to take responsibility for their lives, doing so completely may simply be beyond their grasp.

Consequently, your love as a parent is accompanied by an equal amount of concern. You worry about your child’s health, safety, and future. The stress can get so severe and persistent at times that it literally keeps you up at night.

The challenges are both practical and medical. Adults with complex mental illness struggle with self-care. This means they require assistance to perform many tasks that others of a similar age take for granted. Their need for radical medical intervention is usually clear and recurrent, which can create constant anxiety for you and others in the family.

The time requirements of caring for an adult with a complex mental illness are also significant. The amount of time you spend taking your child to medical appointments, speaking with health care professionals about their situation, and helping your child manage their daily affairs can be overwhelming. This can affect your home life and your job performance, leaving you mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted.

Another stress-inducing factor for parents is the unpredictability of complex mental conditions. You can never know when a serious episode will occur that might require emergency intervention or lead to other urgent medical, legal, or personal problems.

When you have an adult child with complex mental illness, stress and uncertainty may define your life. If you can find ways to reduce both, your circumstances could improve dramatically.

Complex Mental Illness, Your Child, and You: Strategies for Constructive Change

With a little practice and a willingness to modify your approach, you can put your adult child on a path to sustainable recovery. At the same time, you can reduce the strain on yourself, your spouse or partner, and your other children if you have them. If you implement some of these suggestions this year, it can make a positive difference in everyone s life:

  • Have honest but loving conversations. Your son or daughter is an adult and should be treated as such. You can let them know what bothers or frustrates you about their behavior, and together you can work on making some alterations.
  • Keep the dialogue open. You want your children to listen to you and to respect your concerns and frustrations. But you must be prepared to return the favor. They should feel free to express themselves without worrying about being judged, ignored, dismissed, or rejected, even if your reactions are inadvertent.
  • Outline your adult child’s responsibilities, clearly and concisely. A more organized approach to securing your adult child’s cooperation around the house can avoid misunderstandings and defuse long-standing tensions.
  • Offer unconditional compassion, acceptance, and support. No matter how frank your conversations with your child become, you should remind them that your love is without limits. The problematic aspects of the relationship don’t change the nature of your true feelings, and your son and daughter shouldn’t ever have to worry that they might.
  • Recruit a support network. Any contributions other family members or friends could make would lighten your load, and they should be welcome. If you ask your loved ones to pitch in by taking your child to the occasional medical appointment, or on certain errands, or by coming to the house to watch them when you have to leave, you might discover they’re more than willing to contribute.
  • Create a detailed, well-organized healthcare plan. Your child’s best hope for recovery is through strict adherence to a medical plan that addresses all mental and behavioral health issues. This means keeping all doctors’ appointments, taking medication on schedule, carefully recording of behavior to make sure medical professionals are fully informed, the arrangement and organizing of emergency procedures in advance, and so on. Once you create such a plan, it will be your job to make sure it is observed to the letter, with no backsliding or slip-ups tolerated.
  • Find help for yourself. The support group model has become increasingly popular in recent years, and there are support groups available for family members of people struggling with the mental illness of a loved one. If you join such a group and attend their meetings, you’ll receive invaluable guidance and emotional support. You’ll have the chance to share your experiences with other parents who’ve faced similar circumstances and perhaps have come up with good solutions to particular challenges.

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The Inestimable Value of Mental Health Treatment

The odds of recovery are much better when adults with complex mental illness get the treatment they need and deserve. This is far from guaranteed or universal, however. According to recent statistics released by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), only two-thirds of the 11 million-plus American adults with a serious mental illness (SMI) received treatment services in the previous year.

This means most are getting help. But a significant number still aren’t. Some of the barriers preventing an accurate diagnosis and adequate treatment include:

  • Shame or denial on the part of those suffering from mental illness
  • The guilt, shame, or denial of caretakers
  • Financial concerns about the cost of treatment
  • An unwillingness to risk employment by going into treatment, if the mentally ill person is working
  • Discouragement based on past failures when treatment was sought

If you have yet to ask for assistance for your son or daughter, the time to act is today. The symptoms of these serious disorders are simply too debilitating to deal with on your own for too long. This means that the sooner you seek treatment, the better it will be for everyone (especially your child). The stigma against mental illness isn’t as powerful as it used to be, and you can help defuse it even further by refusing to let it stop you from doing what must be done.

If you have financial concerns, you should check all your options before concluding there is nothing to be done. Most high-quality mental health treatment centers will work with your family to make sure you get all the financial assistance from insurance companies and the government for which you’re eligible. When your need is significant, they will generally help further with financing plans that let you pay for treatment services at rates you can afford.

Meanwhile, the Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers to grant up to 12 weeks of leave time for employees who need mental health treatment services. In most cases, your child can likely get the help they need without having to worry about losing their job.

Some small employers are not covered by the FMLA. But if you approach them to discuss the situation, they may be sympathetic. In 21st century society virtually every family has been touched by mental illness in some way, and you may be surprised to discover how many people will be willing to help you if you only ask.

Treating complex mental illness takes time, patience, and expertise. There is no guarantee it will work every time. But with a persistent approach, you should be able to find a superior treatment program that can produce positive results.

Your son or daughter is certainly worth the effort, this year and every year. With perseverance and a hopeful attitude—on the part of everyone involved—in this upcoming New Year all things are possible. If you truly believe this, you can make it a reality for your family.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles-based program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.