Sept. 16, 2015, marked National Step Family Day, a celebration of the unique challenges and triumphs of blended families.
Numerous challenges are associated with being a new stepparent. Some stepparents have an additional challenge: A member of their new family is mentally ill. This family member could be a stepchild or the new partner’s sibling.
What should stepparents do? How should they cope with this new challenge?
Know the illness
The first thing to do is learn about the illness. A wide variety of conditions can be classified as a mental illness, including everything from mild anxiety to severe schizophrenia. Many people with mental illness are able to lead normal, productive lives. No one is defined by the disorder.
Research the illness. Read blogs written by individuals with the same illness. Watch movies. Read books. Most importantly, speak with your partner about the medical history, especially if he or she is the primary caretaker.
Know the treatment
What treatment has this person received? Is he or she still receiving treatment? If your partner is the primary caretaker, this information is vital. Most mental illnesses can be successfully treated, but many patients choose to stop treatment prematurely, either due to side effects or a belief that they can do well without it.
Unfortunately, most mental illnesses are chronic conditions that require continuous treatment. If necessary, speak with your partner about what to do if the person refuses treatment. Consider family therapy. If the individual is a child, provide him or her with strict boundaries and guidelines.
Understand that the person needs more attention
Mental health disorders, by definition, distort an individual’s perception of reality. This distortion may be based on self-worth (e.g., “I am worthless.”) or may manifest as hallucinations or delusions.
Regardless of this distortion, mentally ill individuals often require more attention than neurotypical individuals, i.e. people without mental illness. They may need extra assistance in school or structure at home. They may be unable to live independently even as an adult. Discuss their needs with your partner. Acknowledge that sometimes, things may be difficult.
Don’t blame yourself
Mental illness is a neurological condition to which some individuals are predisposed. Life transitions — for instance, changing schools or the birth of a sibling — commonly trigger episodes or even the initial symptoms. One of those life transitions can be the arrival of a new stepparent.
Some guilt is perfectly normal, but don’t blame yourself, no matter how tempting it might be. Remember that mental illness is a physical illness.
Seek support from friends and family members. If you feel that you cannot discuss your situation with people who are close to you, look into joining a support group or therapy.
Therapy isn’t only for people with mental illness — therapy can also help family members cope and better understand your loved one’s illness.
To learn more about the dynamics of blended families, look for more blogs in this series. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, an individualized treatment plan designed to best address his or her unique challenges might be the answer. For further information, please contact the Florida Mental Health Helpline at any time at 866-846-5588.