Recovering From Family Trauma: Strategies for Reducing Complications and Supporting Recovery

Trauma in families is often linked to mental illness. Having a family member with complex mental illness can trigger all kinds of complications, including traumatic experiences and their repercussions. Treatment for the individual, family education and support, protective factors against trauma, and a cultivation of resilience can all help in preventing and minimizing trauma as well as recovery.

Living in a family affected by complex mental illness is a challenge for every single member. Often the focus is placed largely on the person with mental health issues, while other family members’ needs are left unaddressed or minimized.

Siblings, parents, and children of someone with serious mental illness need mental health care too. And not just for minor issues, but sometimes for trauma. It is not unusual for family members to be traumatized by this experience, but it can be prevented or managed.

Treatment for the family as a whole, education, support groups, and other measures minimize and reverse the trauma and damage caused by mental illness.

How Does Complex Mental Illness Impact Families?

If you have a family member living with a complex mental illness, don’t assume it isn’t your problem. Not only does that loved one need your support, you need guidance for coping with and managing your own resulting mental health issues.

Mental illness, especially complex situations with severe co-occurring conditions, can have a lot of effects on family members:

  • Increased risk of mental health diagnosis
  • Financial problems
  • Stigma and discrimination
  • Unstable home environment
  • Emotional turmoil
  • Difficult relationships
  • Behavioral challenges, such as acting out at school for children
  • Trauma and trauma disorders

The Risk of Trauma in Families

While there are many harmful potential consequences of mental illness in the family, trauma is one of the most serious. The chaos of the home environment, which may include abuse or neglect, is a major risk factor for traumatic experiences.

Children may be particularly vulnerable, but studies show adults may struggle with trauma as well. One group of researchers found that parents of patients with schizophrenia, especially those who experienced violent outburst, have an increased risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Trauma is a reaction rather than a specific event, and it causes a range of mental health symptoms. Certain types of events or experiences, such as abuse or a natural disaster, are more likely to cause trauma, but how people react varies. Some people may become traumatized in a home with mental illness, while others do not. Noted risk factors for PTSD include family psychiatric conditions.

Get the Best Possible Treatment

If you have a loved one struggling with mental health issues, the best thing you can do for the whole family is to make sure they get adequate treatment. Even for the most difficult mental illnesses, treatment can be effective, both for the individual and for the family.

Consider a residential treatment program that will allow your loved one to spend a focused amount of time in a safe, healing environment. Residential centers can provide expert staff, individualized treatment plans, family therapy and support, and aftercare.

Manage Mental Illness as a Family Illness

The best way to deal with trauma resulting from a mentally ill family member is to prevent it. While the mental illness cannot necessarily be prevented, how the family copes with it can have powerful repercussions. Poor management can lead to ripple effects, including trauma. Positive support for the family as a whole can prevent trauma.

Mental illness is not restricted to the one person with the diagnosis. It impacts everyone in the family. The individual who is ill needs family support for recovery. In turn, every other family member must have positive support to cope with the complications. When families approach mental illness as a strong unit, openly and with consideration for everyone’s needs, trauma can be minimized or prevented.

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Get Involved in Treatment

What does treating mental illness as a family illness look like? Simply recognizing that it impacts everyone is not enough. You must take active steps to treat and support the entire family. Start with your loved one’s treatment program. The best facilities include families because they know how important it is.

You should be able to participate in family and relationship therapy, family psychoeducation programming, and support groups. These will help you learn more about your loved one’s mental illness, how to support them, and how to cope individually and as a family.

Total involvement in treatment will strengthen family relationships, improve communication, and provide the foundation for creating a more stable, healthy home environment. It also means that any other family member who needs more dedicated individual help can be identified and supported. For instance, a therapist in a family session may see the signs that you are struggling with depression, which requires diagnosis and treatment.

Provide Protective Factors for Children

Any member of the family can be negatively impacted or even traumatized by mental illness, but children are always most vulnerable. Parents and older siblings can be instrumental in minimizing or preventing trauma by providing as many protective factors as possible:

  • Open communication—age-appropriate, of course—about the individual’s mental illness helps children understand difficult situations and know that it is not their fault.
  • Stability is essential and is hard to provide with complex mental illness. Anything that makes the home more stable, such as routine and scheduling, is helpful.
  • Kids need good self-esteem to face potentially traumatic experiences. They can develop more confidence by getting involved in hobbies and activities, sports, community groups, and by having responsibilities in the home.
  • Strong, loving relationships with adults are highly protective. When a parent cannot provide this, having other adults in a child’s life is positive. Aunts and uncles, grandparents, older siblings, and even trusted friends, coaches, or teachers can play this role.
  • Children are not too young to learn positive coping skills. They can benefit from early practices in mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation strategies.
  • Mental health care, including individual or family therapy, can help a child learn how to better cope with their difficult home environment and relationships. Even if they are not diagnosed with mental illness, proactive care provides benefits.

Cultivate Resilience

Families cannot change the fact of mental illness. They will have struggles other families do not, including trauma. Once traumatized, the experience cannot be taken back. However, all of these challenges can be met with resilience.

Resilience is the ability to adapt to stressful situations and trauma. It can be learned, and the more resilient you are, the easier it will be to cope with and live with family mental illness. There are many things you can do to become more resilient, individually and as a family, including:

  • Building social connections and relying on the support of others
  • Taking care of physical health, with good sleep, diet, and exercise
  • Practicing mindfulness, such as meditation, journaling, yoga, and other strategies to learn to accept emotions and situations as they occur
  • Avoiding negativity and self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse
  • Cultivating purpose, volunteering, finding a hobby you can be passionate about or goals to achieve
  • Practicing acceptance and tolerance with positivity
  • Being grateful every day
  • Getting professional mental health care as needed

Recovering from the trauma of a family member’s mental illness is easiest when those bad experiences can be minimized. Prevention is the best medicine for mental health too, so any steps you can take to protect your family will help. But, even with your best efforts, trauma may be a result of living with mental illness in the home. Good treatment, full family involvement, protective factors, and resilience will help with providing a more stable, positive environment to both lessen and recover from family trauma.

If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental illness. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.