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Electroconvulsive Treatment (ECT)

Family Relationships

Most of the people we spoke to told us about how their family provided support when they were in crisis, such as speaking up for them when they were unable to do it for themselves. Friends were also an important part of people’s support network during difficult times (see “Support networks” and ‘Caring for someone with mental illness’ for more about sources of support).
 
However, not everyone found their family supportive. Family problems and disagreements were a source of worry rather than a source of support for some. Catherine Y said there was no history of depression in her family and they were “quite appalled” when she took an overdose. She felt her family didn’t understand her, and she felt unable to speak to them. Others believed that the family contributed to their mental health problems, particularly when they had experienced neglect or abuse (see for more “Childhood mental health”).

Families provided support in a range of different ways. Sometimes families offered a place to stay, help with childcare, financial help, or simply were there to help when people were experiencing difficulties. During a crisis, family members were often the ones to alert a GP or psychiatrist that they had become unwell. Tania often went to stay with her parents when she had been unwell, and Helen and Cathy’s families helped them buy a house. When Kathleen was in hospital abroad and her husband wasn’t looking after their children, her brother came and took the children back to live with Kathleen’s parents in the UK.
 

Tracy experienced severe postnatal depression when she lived abroad with her ex-husband who was in the army. She had no one she could talk to and her mother came over to help.

Tracy experienced severe postnatal depression when she lived abroad with her ex-husband who was in the army. She had no one she could talk to and her mother came over to help.

Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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So when you began to experience postnatal depression, what did it feel like? What was going on for you?

I just kept crying all the time. I hated life. I hated being where I was. Although [name of ex-husband] was in the army we were put in this lovely place in [name of country]. I loved the town and everything and the people. But there were very few English people. In a way it was a blessing because we didn’t have true military life. We were in with [local people], so I knew more about where I was living, but I had nobody I could talk to. My Mum came over because I was that bad she actually came on the coach, which she would never, ever, ever had done, apart from “her baby needed her”. So that was lovely. And she had to look after my daughter. I was just tearful all the time. I just hated life completely. And they weren’t used to that there. So the army doctors and things didn’t know how to treat me and I think that was why I was sent back to the UK really. 
For some people, just being around family could be a real comfort.
 

Catherine Y talked about the kind of practical and emotional support her husband gave her.

Catherine Y talked about the kind of practical and emotional support her husband gave her.

Age at interview: 41
Sex: Female
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And I think for him, finding out as much information as well, I think that was important. Not that every, well, you kind of use the term quite loosely, “carers”, but not that every carer’s going to, going to, you know, have to do the same with different people, you know, because I’m obviously going to be different to somebody else with depression. But he, he read what he could and, and got support where it was offered and kind of used that in terms of supporting me. But, yes, I think I, at times I did drive him a bit mad [laugh].

You were saying you sort of use the term “carer” quite loosely.

Yes.

Is that… how would you sort of define that?

Well, I don’t know. I mean it, it’s not quite the same as caring for somebody physically, I mean they’re not caring to the point where somebody is having to get you physically out of bed and dress you and, it’s not that type of caring. The caring is kind of more emotionally caring and caring for your safety, caring to make sure you’re okay. I mean he would ma-, I mean he makes, he still does actually, it’s a pattern that’s continued to this day, he makes the, he makes the tea every night. But he’s done that from the very beginning and that was part of his caring role then, making me dinner and kind of to help with the housework, sharing the chores. I was, because I was quite apathetic a lot of the time, quite tired, very often didn’t get up till lunchtime, you know, the he had a part to play as a carer. But he’s my husband. So I kind of, I don’t know, it’s a, it’s, I don’t know if there’s any other word for it, but he was, he was supportive. 
 

Suzanne said all she wanted was to be around people who loved her. She describes having to go back to hospital and leave her family during Christmas dinner.

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Suzanne said all she wanted was to be around people who loved her. She describes having to go back to hospital and leave her family during Christmas dinner.

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So did you head back to your parents at that stage?

Yes. I did indeed. I was living with my parents and then, yes, I was… I went back to live with my parents and that was about January of 2001 yes.

And how were things with your parents? You mentioned you know, quite a strange sort of Christmas dinner that you had to leave half way through and…?

Yes. I think I left shortly after the dessert but when everyone was still gathered round the table, I had to go back to hospital. I was kind of a bit angry with [the hospital] for making me stay in hospital for when all I wanted was to be around people who loved me, rather than people who were, who didn’t know me from Adam. But I just got on with life, you know, and I just adjusted to that was, that was how it had to be, and that was it. Yes.
Yvonne described her family as a “rock” and said that her husband “reads [her] very well” as does her daughter. They seem to know before she does when she is becoming unwell. When Sunil and his wife were first married, his wife knew nothing about his mental health problems. But over the course of their marriage she became his main carer and attended clinical meetings about his health as well as Human Resources meetings with his employers.
 

Sheila’s husband is allowed to leave the psychiatric unit during the day. She took him fishing, which he used to love, and although he found it difficult, she tried to encourage him.

Sheila’s husband is allowed to leave the psychiatric unit during the day. She took him fishing, which he used to love, and although he found it difficult, she tried to encourage him.

Age at interview: 64
Sex: Female
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I mean he does come out. He comes out the odd times for like a few hours. Sometimes he’ll come out for half an hour and I’ve to go back because he’s in a state. We usually try and work through it and he comes home and I said, “Oh well we’ll just do this or just do that.” Last time he came home, we actually walked round the shop and we got the paper and did a little bit of shopping just round the corner. He I have to sort of keep going over these hurdles and saying, “Well don’t go back yet, have a bit of lunch with me.” Or do something like this. And usually once he comes out, he’s out for probably six hours or longer. I took him fishing a few weeks ago because he came home and, “Oh I don’t know what to do.” And he lays on the settee and I think well really he needs to be doing something. So I said to him, “Would you like to go fishing?” Which he hasn’t done for a couple of years. Which used to be his absolute joy. He used to love fishing. So he said, “Oh I don’t know if I can.” Anyway we talked about it. He went and got his fishing tackle out and we went fishing and he got himself in a real tizz when he got there, his float wouldn’t float, he couldn’t do it properly, and I said to him, ”Just calm down. Take a deep breath.” You know, “I can’t do it. I’ve lost it. I’ve lost it how to do fishing.” I said, “You haven’t, just take your time.” And he did and he caught seven fish. But all of a sudden his thoughts came back again and I had to help him pack up. I was worried that he might take a dive into the water, because he was getting very distressed. He didn’t. And I had to take him straight back to the unit, whereas he had hoped to come home, have a bath and a shave before I took him back but he felt, then he felt he was a failure because he couldn’t even go fishing without his thoughts being there. But I said to him, “You’re not failure, its, you’re not failing, you’ve done it, you know.”
However, people’s families weren’t always supportive when people experienced mental health problems. Family matters could add to the pressures people felt. Some people thought they had a responsibility to get better for their family, and this affected the decisions they made. For some their mental health difficulties had surfaced at a time of high stress, such as the birth of a child or during a marital breakdown. Helen lived with a husband who was violent and abusive towards her. She felt she had to cope with this abuse at the same time as learning to care for a child on the autistic spectrum. Jenny had ECT partly because she wanted to believe it would get her better more quickly but also because people said “your family needs you”. She wanted to do the “right thing” for her family and not cause her husband any more stress.

People’s families often helped them access support, but sometimes they could be the ones blocking care as well.
 

Lorraine and Annie felt that their father stopped their mother getting the mental health treatment she needed, and was overly controlling.

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Lorraine and Annie felt that their father stopped their mother getting the mental health treatment she needed, and was overly controlling.

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Lorraine: Well, mum was going to have ECT like Annie said years ago and she didn’t because my dad was, our dad was very, very domineering and just said, “No, you’re not having it.” And she’s always been domineered by him really. She’d say it herself, you know. And we think that’s some, where the, some of the trouble’s come from really.
Last reviewed January 2018.
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