Building Your Family Mental Health and Wellbeing
Despair and desperation filled my mind when my 14 year old daughter, Lizzie, became very ill with Anorexia Nervosa. I had a degree in psychology, but nothing prepares you for the devastating feeling of helplessness when mental illness affects your own family.
Thankfully, over time, Lizzie journeyed through to recovery, got to medical school, and is now a happy, healthy, doctor. So, here are a few thoughts from our journey that might help you and your family.
1. Be discerning about diagnoses.
If your child develops mental ill-health, it is important to talk with your doctor who might provide a diagnosis and a pathway to treatment. But a diagnosis is not a panacea, it brings its own challenges.
Once we ‘get a diagnosis’ we may feel that it is now the responsibility of clinicians to fix the problem, just like they would if they diagnosed appendicitis or a broken leg. And so, we might expect to watch passively from the side-lines, missing the opportunity for effective Family-based Self-help.
And our child may experience their own sense of impotence, if they are labelled with a condition which they feel now defines them. Early in Lizzie’s recovery journey my wife Carol and I decided that we would never describe her as ‘an anorexic’. She was Lizzie, a unique and beautiful person. Yes, she was living through an eating disorder, but there was much more to her than just this illness, and she had a whole life ahead of her. The diagnosis was indeed helpful in providing a pathway to treatment, but it should not define her.
2. Be confident in your capacity.
Increasingly, research shows the value of Family-based Self-help for mental health, especially when family members have been equipped with the knowledge and skills to provide appropriate support. This is why Family Mental Wealth (the social enterprise we co-founded to help other families - see www.FamilyMentalWealth.com) has published the Headway: Parent Toolkit which teaches key skills drawn from the ‘New Maudsley Method for Skill-based Caring’, developed at King’s College and the South London & Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.
Learning these skills was not easy for me, particularly, because I am naturally a ‘Mr Fix-it’ kind of person. But gradually I discovered how to help Lizzie overcome the illness. It was Lizzie who had the lead role, I was just a supporting actor, but I had a vital part to play.
3. Remain full of faith.
Family Mental Wealth is not a faith-based organisation. But Lizzie, Carol and I personally recognise the growing body of research into the mental health benefits of spirituality (eg Miller et al, 2003[i]). For example, regarding eating disorders, a systematic review of 22 research studies (Akrawi et al, 2015[ii]) concluded that: ‘strong and internalised religious beliefs coupled with having a secure and satisfying relationship with God were associated with lower levels of disordered eating, psychopathology and body image concern’.
Certainly, in Lizzie’s case, there were significant steps forward in her recovery journey when Carol and I helped her to see it through the eyes of her faith; to know that God loves her as she is, and can enable her to grow into the fulness of the person she can be.
4. Hang on to hope.
When Lizzie was very ill, Carol and I often felt like we were in a dark tunnel with no light at the end. But the evidence shows that ‘hope for recovery’ is a significant factor to help people, and their parents, on a journey through a mental health condition. So, how do we maintain hope when we feel despair?
For those of us who cherish the Bible, there are biblical principles that can enable us to hang on to hope. For me, I found Psalm 30 particularly powerful… ‘Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.’ I wrestled with that promise in the darkest times of Lizzie’s illness. I kept asking God when that morning of rejoicing would come. But, as Lizzie gradually progressed through the recovery journey, Carol and I discovered that we should not be living for one sudden morning of complete joy. Rather there were many mornings of small joys. We learned to be thankful for each one. We celebrated each little step along the journey. And we held on to the faith that there was hope and a future.
By Nick Pollard BSc (Psych), MBPsS, FRSA.
Photo of Dr Elizabeth McNaught with her parents Nick and Carol Pollard
[i] Spirituality, religion, and health: an emerging research field. Miller W, Thoresen C. American Psychologist. 2003; 58: 24-35.
[ii] Religiosity, spirituality in relation to disordered eating and body image concerns: A systematic review. Akrawi D, Bartrop R, Potter U, Touyz. S. Journal of Eating Disorders. 2015; 3: 29.