Mental Illness

Helping Siblings of Mentally Ill Adults

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helping sibling with mental illness

Mental Illness Affects All Family Members

It can be difficult to navigate the waters when your adult child has a mental illness. You may feel overwhelmed, helpless, guilty or hopeless. The last thing you need to do is worry about any of your other children, but the fact is you need to do just that. Siblings are often overlooked when it comes to family dynamics and the fact is, there is rarely help for siblings of mentally ill adults.

Sibling Concerns

The reality is that siblings will go through many similar emotions as you. They will wonder if it is their fault, if they could have stopped it, if they did something to make it worse. On top of that, they may worry that they may become ill as well, or they may pass it down to their own children.


When an adult becomes ill, their siblings may lose a relationship. While their brother or sister has not died or disappeared, their relationships with each other often changes. The younger sibling may find themselves taking on the role of protector. There may be a loss of support as the sibling may no longer be able to act as a confidant. Or they may be afraid to put anything more on their sibling by sharing their own concerns, for fear of harming their sibling’s mental health.

There may need to be a period of grieving as they let go of their past relationship and any dream or visions they had of their relationship in the future. If the mental illness began in childhood, they may carry residual baggage that could include resentment, anxiety and fear.

Helping a Sibling of a Mentally Ill Adult

But who is acknowledging these emotions within the siblings? Not many people, unfortunately. The data is thin and not many studies are done of how mental illness affects siblings. The siblings are often left out of the discussion and may find themselves left in the dark.

The best way to help your other children is by opening up the lines of communication. Ask them how much they want to be involved and how much information they want. Some may decide they just want to be a supportive sibling and not be involved in the medical side. Others may want to immerse themselves.

If they are open, direct them to books, articles or resources specific to your child’s diagnosis. Having a clear picture may help them understand what is happening with their sibling.


Make it clear to your adult children that they cannot cure their sibling. They can offer them support, encouragement and love, but what happens as a result is not up to them. It is also important to give them permission to take care of themselves. They can’t sacrifice their own mental health or their other relationships because of their sibling. Give them permission, by your words and actions, to live their lives to its fullest. Sacrificing themselves will not do anyone any good.

Support Groups

Encourage your child to find a support group where they can talk with other siblings. Contact your local social services agency or a health care worker for leads on possible groups in your area. Being able to talk to people in similar situations as them may provide some reassurance and a sense of normalcy.


There are many resources that deal specifically with the types of mental illnesses but listed are ones that deal with siblings. This is just a sampling of stories that are written by siblings.

My Sister’s Keeper
by Margaret Moorman
A woman caring for a sister afflicted with schizophrenia shares how her sibling’s disease affected her own development and how she resolved her inner turmoil to be able to meet her sister’s needs and her own



The Forgotten Survivors: a sister’s journey through her brother’s mental illness
by Shannon Jaccard

The Forgotten Survivors explores the unique experience of siblings who have a brother or sister with a serious mental illness. The book provides insight and guidance in how to move the sibling bond forward even if the relationship has been marred by turmoil and separation. Some siblings just don’t know what to do, and often it’s easier for them to do nothing. Others are exhausted from balancing the needs of their aging parents, their ill sibling, and raising their own families. Through all of their efforts, no one bothers to ask them how they are doing. No one recognizes the trauma they have experienced each time their sibling was hospitalized, or each time their mother or father fell apart. These siblings hold in their emotions. The Forgotten Survivors will challenge you to forgive, to love, and to unify.

Circle Around the Sun
by Molly McClosky
Within a few years, his world had begun to fall apart. By the time Molly was old enough to begin to know him, Mike was heavily medicated and frequently delusional, living in hospitals or care homes or on the road. Years later, through reading an astonishing archive of letters preserved by her mother and grandmother, and interviewing old friends of Mike’s, Molly began to piece together a picture of her brother’s life, before and after the illness struck–the story of how a gifted and well-liked student and athlete was overtaken by a terrible illness that rendered him unrecognizable. Now she tells that story–which is also the story of her own demons and of the ways in which a seemingly perfect family can slowly fall apart, and in the end, regroup.

It’s never easy for members of the family when someone has a mental illness, and siblings are often neglected. But good communication with your adult child, can help them to thrive.

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