I suppose everyone longs for a silver bullet. The idea that there is something that you can do or say that will instantly solve a huge problem. Thus was I tempted to attend the Siblings Connect conference, designed for people who have siblings with mental illness. My hope was to come away better equipped and able to help my nearest and dearest.
But as it turned out, I was about to meet a whole new family I didn’t even know I had. Arriving at the venue on a bitterly cold morning, kind people from Rethink (see photo) ushered me down the dark, warm corridors of Bloomsbury’s Russell Hotel and into a grand room, beautifully decorated with classical statues and illuminated by soothing lights. Immediately I felt at home as someone gave me welcome cup of coffee.
In my personal definition, mental illness is any altered state of mind where by which a person struggles to carry on the business of daily life. Their family have to try and help them with their struggle and at the same time try to find common ground with this person whom they love but who they find so altered.
There is a wealth of evidence to show that siblings can make a huge difference in the recovery of their brother or sister. But there is no general advice you can give on how to help as every illness has its own phases and recovery pattern.
In the same way, every sibling’s experience is different, depending on what age they are when their sibling gets ill, how close they are to the sibling prior to illness and the nature of the illness they have. The one thing we all have in common is that we have a sibling with mental illness, but this turns out to be the most important thing of all.
The day was divided into speeches and workshops, and the first speaker was Catherine Gamble, a consultant nurse at South West London St George’s ‘Recovery College’. She explored ways that we, as siblings, could increase our skills and resilience, improving our own recovery from the effects of mental illness and enabling us to better support our siblings.
Next we heard from Molly McCloskey, author of Circles Around The Sun, whose brother got schizophrenia when she was a child in what seemed to be the perfect, sport-loving American family. It has taken the rest of her life to come to terms with the consequences. In a moving speech she articulated all our fears, denial and guilt. Her message was that your sibling’s illness will affect you, and all the more if you think it won’t.
Following Milly we heard from Sidney Millin whose brothers and sisters had helped him through 8 years of bi-polar disorder episodes and his message was that we should all talk about mental illness with the sufferer a lot more than we do. Communication is the key to recovery.
And indeed, as I looked back over 45 years of living with other people’s mental illness, I see that mental illness has often been talked about in our family, but very rarely with the person who was experiencing it themselves. My family like to talk about the person affected by mental illness when they are safely out of the way, perhaps fearing the volatility that might result from an open discussion. Later I discovered that there is a huge amount of help and information on the Rethink Mental Illness website to help start those difficult conversations.
During the next strengthening coffee I chatted to new friends, amongst them a young photographer who is going to start a Rethink group in Brighton and a sibling who has taken up running and finds it brings normality to his life, helping him to cope with his sister’s illness.
But there were also plenty of middle aged siblings, and their experiences had a profound effect on me, showing me the consequences of what happens when you have a sibling who has been ill for many years and have either tried to ignore it, or got involved but had little support yourself.
It strikes me that this is what Siblings Connect is trying to address, providing the chance to join workshops and learn practical skills, as well as talk to one another.
When you listen to the safety advice in an aeroplane they always tell you that you must fit your own oxygen mask before attempting to assist others. And if you are not equipped with a support network when you enter the fray of mental illness, there is a chance that you will end up in a worse condition than when you set out to help.
Most of us rely on our family for this kind of support, but when your sibling is also the person who is ill, it’s not easy. I came away from Siblings Connect feeling that I liked my new family and they liked me. And I also look forward to safe and comforting atmosphere of our next family gathering.
Siblings Connect was part of Rethink Mental Illness’ Siblings Network, an information and support project for the brothers and sisters of people affected by mental illness. For more information on their information resources, blogs, stories, events, workshops and support groups visit: www.rethink.org/siblings