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Heavy Meddle: My Sister Is Mentally Ill And My Mom’s In Denial

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Dear Steve,

My sister has been struggling lately with some mental health issues.

Based on the failed mental health treatments of other family members, my mother is suggesting that she stay away from therapy and medication.

How can we help my mother understand what my sister needs right now?


Sister in Need

Dear Sister,

This is a tough one. Actually, it’s a few different tough ones rolled into one. The first issue is that your sister is struggling. Watching a sibling suffer is complicated, because the love we feel for them is complicated. We adore them. We compete with them. We view them as allies and enemies, as confidants and traitors. Thus, when they lose their grip, we feel ten ways at once: sad, guilty, triumphant, scared for our own sanity.

You now have to combine that anguish with the larger family dynamics. Think about your mother’s stake in all this. Can you imagine the anguish and even the sense of culpability she might be feeling? That alone would be a reason to dismiss the seriousness of your sister’s problems. But in this case, there’s also some perceived history of failed treatment that she’s using to resist intervention. This may be her way of denying the gravity of your sister’s problem, or it may an honest effort to avoid making a bad situation worse. It’s probably both.

If your sister is anything like most people who struggle with mental illness, she’s unlikely to seek help on her own, or acknowledge the need for it. This is where your mother’s influence is especially dangerous. They may be conspiring, unconsciously, to deny how much trouble your sis is in.

So — lucky you! — you get to play the heavy, the bad cop, the alarmist.

My basic point is that you’ve got to have your say on this, sister. It’s the silence you’ll regret most.

To the extent possible, try to make sure your concern doesn’t become a power struggle. I’d urge you to sit down with your mother and to speak with her in a calm, direct, emotionally vulnerable way about why you feel your sister would benefit from therapy and/or medication. It would help if you have a clear plan in mind, concrete steps you’re recommending, so that your mother can see that you’re serious about this, and that you’re willing to help. Talk to a mental health professional (or two) beforehand. They may also have good advice also about how to approach your mom. If you’re the sort of family where direct communication degenerates into argumentation or passive aggressive evasion, consider writing her a letter. This might also allow you to make the points you need to, and to find the sort of tone that your mother can hear.

My basic point is that you’ve got to have your say on this, sister. It’s the silence you’ll regret most. And you should enlist the help of other loved ones who feel as you do (the “we” you mention above).

Try not to get angry if your mother can’t hear you. In her own mind, she’s trying to protect your sister, and perhaps herself. But don’t be deterred. You need to talk with your sister, as well. You have to do so with as much love in your heart as you can muster. Because anything less will be regarded with suspicion and maybe even paranoia.

Look: In the end, you can’t force someone to seek psychological help, unless things get so bad that law enforcement intervenes. All you can do as a loving sister is to try to compel her to recognize that we all need help, that none of us can do it alone, and that turning away from a problem doesn’t make it disappear.

I hope for your sake that your mother and sister will choose to listen to you. Whether or not they can, you’re doing the right thing in struggling to be heard. ♥

Hang tough,

Editor's Note: Check back on Monday for another installment of Heavy Meddle. In the meantime, what about you? Need any advice? Are you struggling with an existential crisis? An etiquette issue? Mild forms of social self-recrimination? Steve "Heavy Meddle" Almond can help. Unburden yourself. Email us.

This program aired on July 3, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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