Common Challenges Families Face During Residential Mental Health Treatment

Understanding the unique challenges families face during residential mental health treatment can help you prepare for the changes that lie ahead. Loss of controlcoping with your own pain, and fear of changing family dynamics are all real and valid concerns as you begin the journey toward healing. But with the right supports, you can ensure that you face these challenges together and grow stronger as a family.

For the families of people with mental illness, residential treatment can hold tremendous promise. After what is often years of suffering, the very act of your loved one agreeing to seek residential care can seem like it will bring deep relief. And often, it does. But what many don’t expect are the challenges families face during treatment. By understanding the complex feelings you are likely to experience during this time, you can be better prepared to cope with the changes that lie ahead and ensure that your family heals together.

Loss of Control


It is natural to want to protect those you love. For many families of those living with mental health disorders, this can translate into taking charge of a life that seems out of control to shield your loved one from the consequences of their illness. This can be an exhausting and difficult position to be in, but it likely also gives you a feeling of control that can bring tremendous comfort.

When your loved one comes to treatment, however, you inherently give up that control; your loved one’s care is now in the hands of someone else and they must walk the path to healing without you. While this can, in many ways, come as a relief, it can also bring up fears about what that loss of control means for you and your family member. If you’re not there to monitor them, will they be participating in treatment in the best way possible? Will they make good choices? Will they be comfortable? Will they stay safe?

Your desire to support your loved one and be their partner on the journey toward recovery is normal and commendable. But the truth is that you ultimately cannot control your loved one or their illness, nor should you; to truly support someone, you must allow them to take control of their own life and figure out the best way to heal.  As the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) points out:

The reality is that we can only control our own actions. We have to learn to give the people around us responsibility for decisions that only they can make. It is ultimately up to them to decide their goals and strategies. You can encourage your family members, but you must let go of the feeling that you have to solve their problems for them.

This is critical not only for your own well-being, but for that of your loved one; they must be given the opportunity to be independent and learn to solve their own problems in order to truly recover.

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Coping with Pain


When you’re busy worrying about and taking care of your loved one, it can be easy—and even feel necessary—to push aside your own feelings and focus on the task at hand. Their emotions can be so big and take up so much room that it may feel like there is no space for your own. Or, perhaps your feelings are so painful that you hide them from yourself by transferring your focus to your loved one.

But when your loved one comes to treatment and you are left on your own, those feelings can begin to make themselves known. Suddenly, you don’t have a layer of protection from your own sadness, anger, disappointment, resentment, fears, and self-blame, and that can be deeply distressing. You may feel shame even having these feelings in the first place.

The fact is that having a loved one suffering from a psychiatric disorder is painful. It can be frustrating, sad, isolating, and disorienting and those are all perfectly normal feelings to have. But just as your loved one needs help, you need your own supports to cope with your distress. This may mean finding your own therapist to deal with the complex feelings you are experiencing and learn how to care for yourself. You may also benefit from a local peer support group where you can meet other people who understand what you are going through and provide a safe space for you to express yourself.

Changing Family Dynamics


As your loved one begins to heal, their transformation reverberates throughout the entire family and can destabilize established dynamics. This is because your family is an inherently interconnected system. “Systems theory says that living things function within groups that have an interdependent relationship to one another, and operate within that relationship so as to maintain balance,” explains Deborah Klinger, a family therapist. “In families, each member is part of the larger system, which is both influenced by the dynamics of the system and influences the dynamics of the system. When one person changes in some way, it affects all of the family members in some way.”

When someone struggles with mental illness, it is common for the family to arrange themselves around that person and define themselves in relation to them. Perhaps you are the caretaker. Perhaps your marriage has been neglected because all of your energy has been spent trying to keep your adult child stable. Perhaps you are a sibling who feels neglected because your parents’ focus has been given to your brother or sister. Regardless of the specifics of the situation, the changes your loved one undergoes will begin to affect each person within the family and disrupt the status quo.

In many ways, this creates opportunities for establishing new dynamics. However, getting there can be difficult; without your loved one’s illness casting its shadow over your family, latent conflicts and emotions can come to light and must be dealt with in order to move forward. If you have defined yourself as a caretaker, you must now find a new identity as your loved one no longer needs the functional supports you have provided. You must now learn how to have a partnership with your spouse that doesn’t revolve around your sick child. You must now learn how to be in a family where your sibling no longer takes up so much emotional space.

Family and couples therapy can be invaluable resources for people whose loved one is in residential mental health treatment. There, you can develop the insight and skills to develop healthier dynamics and ensure that the changes you experience are positive. In a supportive environment, you can begin to resolve interpersonal conflicts and explore the possibilities you now have to create a richer and more fulfilling future for yourself and your family as a whole.

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Helping Families Face Challenges Together


At Bridges to Recovery, we understand the unique challenges families face during treatment. That’s why we encourage family involvement throughout the treatment process and offer family and couples therapy to clients and their loved ones during their time in care. This gives you the chance to not only learn about and process your loved one’s illness, but it also provides a safe space in which to learn how to manage your own emotions and behaviors. With the guidance of an experienced therapist, you can begin to uncover any dysfunctional dynamics that have developed within your family and create a roadmap for how to move forward together, taking the needs of each family member into account.

Your loved one’s time in residential treatment is the beginning of a new life for them and for you. With the right supports, you can ensure that the journey you are starting together leads to a place of love, understanding, and an increased capacity for joy.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance abuse and eating disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you and your loved one start on the path to healing.

Image source: Unsplash user Natalya Zaritskaya