Mental health problems can easily affect a person’s children and other members of the family. Friendships and social life in general may also be affected. Family dynamics are particularly affected when carers live in the same household as the person who is unwell, whether as a nuclear family (parents and children) or an extended family (where several generations share the same home). Some carers can get on with their social life without too much trouble, but friendships may change and social life can be difficult to combine with the instability, ‘crisis and drama’ of caring.
Understandably, many carers are particularly concerned about how mental health problems in the family affect children. It can frighten young children to see adults change or behave in unusual ways. Many of the carers with children commented that children in families affected by mental health problems don’t get enough support.
Anne’s two daughters reacted differently when she explained her husband’s mental health problems…
People tried to shield young children from the situation as far as possible, and some felt their children had been protected. Others felt it was impossible to completely protect children when living in a household with mental health problems. Some children were upset and confused by disruptions to family life, and some didn’t always get the attention and support they needed when they needed it.
When the children were young, Kiran worried about them and about money (recording in Gujarati).
Being a carer with young children can be very tough. Some parents felt torn between their responsibilities for their children and for the person who was unwell. Some were caring for a son or daughter and said their other children worried they would have to spend their adult life caring for their brother or sister.
Her youngest children worry about their older brother and think they may have to look after him…
As they get older, some children take part in the care of a parent or sibling, and some become the main carer. Some talked about how caring responsibilities affected their children’s education.
Kiran’s daughter came home regularly while at university to help care for his wife (recording in…
Pooja’s son decided to get a job instead of studying so he could help his parents.
Young people can really struggle with caring. One woman described how her teenage daughter felt helpless because she could not help her step-father get better.
Some children don’t want to get too closely involved, and carers of adult children described how their other children sometimes pulled away from caring responsibilities once they got their own family. Many continued to support their parents, however.
The effect of mental health caring on children can reach into their adult life. For example, two South Asian carers said that their children and grandchildren had been disappointed when they had been less involved than expected in arranging their marriages.
Other family members
In addition to caring for the unwell person and for children, many carers have other caring responsibilities too, for example for parents, in-laws or others. It can be hard to juggle different relationships and responsibilities. Some also felt they needed to shield parents or other relatives from the mental health problem, and waited years before letting them know, if at all.
Aiko has decided not to tell her parents in Japan just yet about her husband’s illness.
In some cases carers lost touch with relatives and friends, either because they didn’t have time to see them, or because family or friends stayed away (see ‘Support from family, friends and community’). One man’s family had distanced themselves so that they wouldn’t have to take on caring responsibilities for his wife. Travelling abroad was impossible for practical or economic reasons for some carers, and keeping in touch with family and friends abroad was challenging. Some still felt supported from afar by phone calls and letters when they were unable to visit.
Several carers had at some point worried that poor family relationships could partly be why there were mental health problems in the family. Some people described their family as ‘dysfunctional’ and in several cases there were conflicts about how best to care for the person with mental health problems.
Living in extended families when someone is unwell can greatly help carers because more people are around to help. For one carer, however (who lived with her in-laws) having her mother come to stay when she was unwell caused friction in the home, and she had to ask her mother to go home. Another woman, (who grew up in East Africa) had found that living in a polygamous (one man being married to more than one woman) extended family had caused lots of friction between her and her half-siblings.
Living in a polygamous family created tension rather than support.
Friendships and social life
Being a carer also affects relationships outside the family. Caring commitments can make it difficult to have friends. People said it was hard to make firm plans, be spontaneous, find the time for friendships, or to involve the person they care for when their behaviour was socially awkward.
Maintaining friendships as a carer requires flexibility.
A few of the people we talked to said their social life had not been affected by caring, but many felt it was more difficult to socialise or that their social circle was now much smaller. A few felt very isolated with little contact with ‘the outside world’. Some people discovered that their real friends were those who stayed in touch when they became carers.
Kiran’s social life and his relationship to his wife has changed after she got depression…
Marcie lost most of her friends, and thinks women are better than men at staying in touch.
Some people are selective as to who they talk to about caring, and some chose not to talk to anyone at all as ‘they won’t understand’. Others find that friends lost interest when the same issues about the stresses and strains of caring arose year after year. Feeling hurt by losing friends due to being a carer made others careful when trying to make new friends.
Having been hurt, she wants to take time to form new friendships.
After losing many friends, Amar is now selective about who she talks to.
Carers also described relationships to their local and/or ethnic community. While many felt supported or that being a carer did not affect their relationships, others felt excluded and that people pulled away from them or treated them with suspicion. (See more detail in ‘Negative attitudes to mental health problems‘)
Her sister’s mental health problems meant Sophie’s family stood out in the crowd when she grew up.
Last reviewed September 2018.