Our families can play a key role in our mental health and wellbeing. We often learn the skills to manage life’s difficulties from our family.
Good family relationships where members spend time together on activities that everyone enjoys can strengthen family bonds, make us feel safe and loved, and provide an increased sense of belonging and self-esteem.
If you have mental health issues, your family can be one of your supports. They can and may notice changes in your behaviours, your emotions and general health. They can offer you help and support. Learning ways to help you and your family support each other with mental health issues can be an important part of recovery.
Learning ways to help you manage challenging family relationships may help improve mental health. Every family experiences good and not so good times, and they do not always get along. Some may have more challenges than others in trying to communicate with each other and giving and receiving support. Perhaps seeking support together through family counselling may be of help, but if it not for you, it is okay to seek help separately to your family if you do not feel comfortable with them. You may have to try a few times to find what works for you.
Being with my son has been incredibly helpful. He is completely present, and it helps me get out of my own head. There's no pretension or fear—he is 100% here and it's awesome.
At first, I had a lot of judgement from my husband’s family. There's a lot that wasn’t accepted or dealt with appropriately. But because we've been so candid and honest about our experiences, they have actually changed.
Both my brothers have bipolar, as well as myself. My dad probably had it, and my grandfather too. We've got a strong dose in our family, but the susceptibility definitely runs down the generations. My mum's pretty incredible, to cope with us all, as you can imagine.
It’s not until recently that I’ve actually disclosed to my family and friends that I was struggling with this illness for so long. My immediate family didn't really know.
I was open to seeking help. Knowing the impact it had on everyone around me, especially my younger siblings, I wanted to do something about it.
Families come in many forms, not always biological, not always living under the same roof, and sometimes with or without extended family members.
Not everyone has a supportive family of origin, and sometimes a person may have a family who loves them but is unable to offer the necessary care.
If family members are unable to understand or accept a person’s mental health issues when first disclosed, they may not feel like talking about them again—to their family or to anyone else. Unhealthy family relationships may set a person up for some mental health problems and hold back their recovery.
Many Australians experience mental illness in their lifetime. As family members, partners and friends, we can all do our part to support our loved ones through these times. Sometimes the best thing we can do is sit with the person, acknowledge and validate their pain, not pass judgement or give opinions. Ask open ended questions, sit quietly with the person, or do an activity together, and help them to access professional support.
Seeking support and attaining wellbeing is achievable regardless of how a family is made up. A solution may be to reach out and create a family of choice. The important thing is having someone to talk to—a grandparent, aunt, cousin, family friend, or school/work friend.
Stressors such as unemployment, poverty or financial stress, death, illness, and disability can cause extra difficulty and put family relationships under additional strain.
If you notice behaviour changes or feel like something is not right with your loved one, reaching out first often helps. The way in which you help can vary, depending on your relationship with the person. Knowing how and what to say to someone in distress can be a great help. Even if they deny they have a problem at first, keep the doors of communication open as they may come back to you later. They may agree to seek help in time.
If you want to support a family member and don't know where to start, take a look at our page on how to support someone. In supporting someone, it is important to look after yourself as well. Take a look at our page on support for carers.
We also have resources below to help you get started.
A closer look
Supportive family relationships can be a protective factor for mental health
The risk of developing anxiety or depression may decrease when you’re able to trust and rely on close relationships for support. (Source)
Domestic violence has negative impacts on families
Children are affected even when they can’t see or hear violence, because of the impact it has on their parent or carer. Experiencing family violence can have lifelong impacts on children and carers may increase the chance of developing a mental illness. (Source)
Intimate partner violence (IPV) can damage your mental health
In Australia, around 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner. It’s important to look out for typical signs such as coercive, controlling behaviour, threats, and emotional abuse within your relationship, and to seek counselling if you are unsure. Half of the people who experience IPV develop serious mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Read more on our domestic violence page. (Source 1) (Source 2) (Source 3)
Some mental illnesses are genetic
Children of parents with a mental illness are at greater risk of behavioural and developmental challenges as well as a higher risk of experiencing their own mental health difficulties. Although environmental factors can make a major contribution to a child’s mental health, some mental illnesses have been linked to an inheritable gene. Intergenerational trauma may also contribute to a child's mental health. (Source 1) (Source 2) (Source 3)
Various cultures can have differing needs for care and support
Australia has 300 different ancestries. Other cultural family and living arrangements are a big factor in Australian life. Cultural influences are a consideration in the kinds of support that families can offer, and the kinds of support that families need when caring for someone with a mental illness. (Source 1) (Source 2)
Seeking support as a family can bring benefits
Family counselling can help members to understand each other better, experience less conflict, learn different ways to speak to each other, and solve problems together. It can also help them express their love, make each other feel stronger, and understand each person’s unique feelings and challenges. This is especially true if someone in the family has a mental health. Family counselling can help each family member manage their own emotions, needs and behaviours as well as develop ways to recover and heal together as a family. (Source 1) (Source 2) (Source 3)
You might find online and phone-based mental health resources helpful. Some suggestions are below. You can find more with our Search tool (opens in a new tab).