Mental illness has a deep impact on families, including sibling relationships. NAMI (National Alliance Mental Illness) writes that… “The disruptive force of mental illness is often referred to as family burden. This burden has a subjective component, which consists of the emotional consequences of the illness for other family members, and an objective component, which consists of their everyday problems.  At the core of the subjective burden is a powerful grieving process. Family members may mourn for the relative they have known and loved before the onset of the illness, for the anguish of their family, and for their own losses. In addition, family members are confronted with an objective burden—the daily problems and challenges that accompany the mental illness.”

Unbalanced Relationships

Often this dynamic causes unbalanced relationships. As a sibling, you can feel caught up in a tsunami of grief, unpredictable moods, anger, confusion, and even despair. The result can be resentment, guilt, and shame. This happens more often when one child is given more attention due to their need, and it can feel like favoritism to the other siblings. As a child, you have fewer coping skills than an adult and are more vulnerable to trauma.

One woman I spoke with said that she tried to disappear within her family unit as a result of her sibling’s mental illness. She didn’t want to cause any problems or any more work for her parents who were so taxed by caring for the other children.

Team Up

How can we mitigate these challenges? Although we don’t have control over our circumstances, we do have the choice of how we respond to them. We can choose to be proactive and come together as a unit. Coming alongside each family member, and giving voice to the needs rather than assuming the need is only in the one struggling with mental illness could bring a balanced approach that conceptualizes the situation holistically, instead of blaming everything on one individual. A team perspective could eliminate isolating it to one person and others accommodating to them.

Counselor Debbie Abrahamson says that she has seen families refer to themselves as “Team Smith” including their last name so that the client who is struggling can melt into a secure environment where they feel they are fighting together. As a result, the entire scenario changed.  Blame is no longer communicated, and they are bonded to fight the illness rather than feel one person is pointed out as the problem.  This perspective shift increases unity and transparency.


Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Colossians 3:13-14 (NIV)


How has mental illness affected your sibling relationships? I’d love to hear from you today, comment below.

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