But as it turned out, I was about to meet a whole new family. Arriving at the venue, kind people in Rethink Mental Illness T-shirts smiled at me reassuringly. They ushered me down the dark, warm corridors of Bloomsbury’s Hotel Russell and into a huge room, beautifully decorated with classical statues illuminated by soothing lights. Immediately I felt at home as someone handed me a welcome cup of coffee.
We have a lot of mental illness in my family. There’s my mother and sister who both have bipolar disorder and my grandparents who also have experience of mental illnesses.
But in my personal definition, mental illness is any altered state of mind where, as a result, a person struggles to carry on the business of daily life. Their family have to try and help them with their struggle and at the same time try to find common ground with this person whom they love but who is so altered.
There is a wealth of evidence to show that siblings can make a huge difference in the recovery of their brother or sister who is mentally ill. Naturally every sibling’s experience is different, depending on what age they are when their sibling gets ill, how close they are to the sibling prior to illness and the nature of the illness they have. The one thing we all have in common at Siblings Connect is that we have a sibling with mental illness, but this turns out to be the most important thing of all.
The first speaker was Catherine Gamble, a consultant nurse at South West London St George’s ‘Recovery College’. Catherine talked about the value of sibling relationships in someone’s recovery from mental illness. She explored ways that we, as siblings, could increase our skills and resilience, improving our own recovery from the effects of mental illness and enabling us to better support our siblings. You can watch Catherine's talk here.
Next we heard from Molly McCloskey, author of Circles around the Sun, whose brother developed schizophrenia when she was a child in what seemed to be the perfect, sport-loving American family. It has taken the rest of her life to come to terms with the consequences. In a moving speech she articulated all our fears and feelings of denial and guilt. Her message was that your sibling’s illness will affect you, and all the more if you think it won’t.
Following Molly, we heard from Sidney Millin whose brothers and sisters had helped him through 8 years of bipolar disorder episodes and his message was that we should all talk about mental illness with the person affected by it a lot more than we do. Communication is the key to recovery. You can watch Sidney's talk here.
And indeed, as I looked back over 45 years of living with other people’s mental illness, I see that mental illness has often been talked about in our family, but very rarely with the person who was experiencing it themselves. My family like to talk about the person affected by mental illness when they are safely out of the way, perhaps fearing the volatility that might result from an open discussion. Later I discovered that there is a huge amount of help and information on the Rethink Mental Illness and their anti-stigma and discrimination campaign Time to Change websites to help start those difficult conversations.
During the next strengthening coffee I chatted to new friends, amongst them a young photographer who is going to start a Rethink Mental Illness siblings group in Brighton and another sibling who has taken up running and finds it brings normality to his life, helping him to cope with his sister’s illness.
But there were also plenty of older siblings too, and in many ways their experiences had a more profound effect on me, showing me the consequences of what happens when you have a sibling who has been ill for many years and have either tried to ignore it, or got involved but had little support yourself. It strikes me that this is what Siblings Connect is trying to address, with the chance for us to join workshops and learn practical skills, talk to one another and think about the support and information that is available to us.
When you are in an aeroplane they always tell you that you must fit your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist a child who also needs one. And if you are not equipped with a support network when you enter the fray of mental illness, there is a chance that you will end up in a worse condition than when you set out to help.
Most of us rely on our family for this kind of support, but when your closest sibling is also the person who is ill, it’s not easy. I came away from Siblings Connect feeling that I liked my new family and they liked me. And I also look forward to the safe and comforting atmosphere of our next family gathering.