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What about helping a family member?

Ok, so we tell you how to help yourself when dealing with mental health issues, how to talk to someone like a doctor, therapist, counsellor and how to help a friend, all in our Help section. You may be wondering, "but what if my dad is the one with depression?", or "I don't have a mental illness, and neither do my friends, but my sister has an eating disorder and drug addiction", and so on. We recognize that family members struggle with mental health issues too. It can be similar to helping a friend with mental health issues, but this can come with its own set of unique problems and challenges.

Caring for your parent – role reversal

When a child or teen is expected to take care of a parent, this is referred to as role reversal, and is described as "a relationship disturbance in which a parent looks to a child to meet the parent’s need for comfort, parenting, and intimacy" (Macfie, Mcelwain, Houts, & Cox, 2005). This can be stressful and even damaging for a young person to go through. Having a parent rely on you for their needs, rather than the other way around is not fair and can be unhealthy.

Note that this is different from helping a friend through a difficult time. While helping a friend can be hard, typically you get to separate yourself from that friend, go home, unwind and get some time to yourself. Hopefully that person also has other people that can help to support them as well, so that you are not their only source of support. Helping a friend is different because you are not placed in a position of having to "parent your parent".

So what can you do?

Similarly to helping a friend though, you can try to encourage your parent to get help for their mental illness. You can encourage them to start by seeing a doctor. If it is difficult to talk to your parent about this, ask someone to support you in this conversation, like a sibling, aunt, uncle, or someone else you trust. 

The important point to remember is it is not all up to you to help your family member and it is not your responsibility to take care of them. If they refuse to get help for themselves, you can reach out for help for yourself at least. Reach out to a friend, other family members, teachers, guidance counsellors, family doctors or a counsellor/ therapist to get support for yourself.

How it affects you

Helping a parent or other family member with a mental illness can be overwhelming, even more so than helping a friend perhaps. Read our Self Care While Helping a Friend section to learn about healthy boundaries and how to take care of yourself. Although the section is titled for friends, don't worry, it applies to helping family members as well.

If at anytime, you are overwhelmed, in crisis, or need someone to call and talk to, try one of these numbers and get the support you need and deserve.

Macfie, J., Mcelwain, N.L., Houts, R.M., & Cox, M.J. (2005). Intergenerational transmission of role reversal between parent and child: Dyadic and family systems internal working models. Attachment & Human Development Journal, 7, 51–65.