It was a fantastic day and I am enormously proud of the lead which Rethink Mental Illness has been able to take in this area.
We all know, intuitively, that mental illness impacts not just on the individual themselves but on those around them, in particular their close family. Yet services so often ignore this reality, despite the evidence that a supportive family can make a big difference to recovery.
I have some personal insight into this, having grown up with a severely disabled sibling. My brother’s disability had a significant impact on my family and my other brother and I have had a major role in supporting him. Very positively for me I can think of no more profound influence on me and some of the choices I have made in life.
Mental illness however can be a particular challenge for siblings. There is something about the nature, particularly of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which mean they are especially challenging and disruptive. The fact that in many cases, the first signs of mental illness begin in late teenage years, can make it especially tough for younger siblings in particular.
Three especially strong messages came out of the event for me
1. Siblings can play an enormously important role in supporting someone with severe mental illness. Most importantly they can bring acceptance and loyalty. As one of the speakers said at the conference:
Even when I gave up on hope, my brothers and sisters didn't. For eight long miserable years they stood by me.
Siblings can play a critical role in tackling the isolation which is often the most devastating aspects of severe mental illness. It was inspiring to hear what siblings did to help their brother or sister maintain some kind of social contact either with them or by helping them stay in contact with friends.
Siblings also help share the pressures experienced by parents. The roles are different but many siblings take a key role in supporting parents both emotionally and in practical ways such as finding information and helping them navigate the system. In later life, siblings can end up taking an even more central role after their parents pass away.
2. The second point was the extent to which for most mental health professionals, siblings are completely off the map. As one practitioner at the conference said:
We arrive at the house, the service user is one room and everyone else is kept out of sight.
This focus on the individual at the expense of family or other networks of support around them is a real weakness. There are necessary boundaries of confidentiality but in recovery focused practice there should be a greater emphasis on empowering and equipping those around an individual to better support them. Practitioners should recognise the role of siblings and as a matter of routine and ensure they are properly supported too. This may simply be by signposting them to the Siblings Network but it is crucial that their needs and contribution are recognised.
3. The final point relates to stigma. Many people at the event talked very movingly about how difficult it can be to talk openly about their sibling’s mental illness, both within the family and to friends. Such conversations are not easy given the difficult emotions involved but a strong consensus from the day was that they need to happen. Perhaps as the tide of wider stigma around mental illness retreats it will become more natural for families to discuss it in the same way they might discuss any other significant health issue facing them.
The fact that discussing these issues can be so hard, really underlines why this project is so important. For some, the Siblings Network creates the only opportunity they have to be open and honest about what’s happening in their family, find out ways they can support their sibling and crucially, get advice about how to look after their own mental health and wellbeing.
About the Siblings Network
The Siblings Network provides advice and information, support groups, workshops and events, and stories, videos and blogs for the brothers and sisters of people with mental illness.
We also provide a network for professionals to share best practice and ideas around how to support siblings, and information for the parents of people affected by mental illness wondering about sibling issues.
We will be posting up videos and presentations from our Siblings Connect event shortly. Sign up to our regular siblings newsletter on the Siblings Network homepage to stay updated.