The impact of having a sibling living with mental health issues

This article was written by Mackenzie. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

Why is it that no one talks about the impact of living with a sibling who lives with mental health issues?

Because it’s not as important?

Because we should just focus on the people who are suffering?

What if I told you that people with a sibling who has experienced mental health challenges are 87% more likely to be diagnosed with depression in their adult life?

Or that more than 80% of the general population has or lives with a sibling experiencing mental health issues.

I’m a 16-year-old teenager with a sister who has experienced mental health challenges throughout her childhood.

Imagine being told by your parents as a young person, “I’ll talk to you later; I’m just sorting out your sister,” or “can you just shut up? You’re making things worse.” You cop it on the shoulder, right? Imagine this happening every day when all you’re trying to do is help. As a result, you feel alone, isolated, and even ignored by your parents.

I know I did.

Picture this.

You’ve just finished dinner.

Your sister has been in her room since she got back from school, and you haven’t seen her all afternoon.

She comes out with puffy eyes, and you say, “what’s up with you?” and she loses it.

She starts to have a panic attack—Dad’s yelling. Mum’s ignoring her.

You end up shutting yourself in your bedroom, knowing what will happen. “I don’t want to do this anymore, I can’t deal with this anymore, I don’t want to be here anymore,” you try to mute the sound of her voice, but you’re stressing. No one’s calming her down.

Things start getting thrown at the wall, and dad’s still shouting.

You block it out and go out into the kitchen an hour later. She’s sitting on the couch watching Gilmore Girls, and you think, what the hell, she was a mess not long ago?

It’s like nothing happened.

This was the story of my life for years.

My sister was diagnosed with depression, sensory disorder, and anxiety in year four.

I was in year six and didn’t understand what that meant at the time.

She was still playing with dolls; how could she be ‘depressed’? I didn’t understand, but I saw the effects on our family, appointment after appointment.

Being late for school every day because she wouldn’t get out of the car and not have dinner as a family because she was in her room throwing her homework at the walls.

I remember getting so angry that my fists would clench, and my face would redden. I would think, “why can’t she be normal?”

I understand now.

I understand she doesn’t like how the water in the shower drips down her face. I know that it isn’t that she doesn’t want to go to school; my sister can’t be without my mum because she was convinced she would die. I understand she doesn’t like the way some clothes itch her skin. I also understand she can’t sit in a restaurant because it’s too loud.

When my sister started high school, everyone’s focus was on her.

At this point, I felt alone and spoke to my mum about it, which surprised me. She was shocked. She looked at me as the golden child. The child who went to school every day. The child who took the time to do her chores and never caused issues. But I wasn’t as well as she thought I was. So, my mum organised for me to go to a counsellor, which I wasn’t happy about. You go to a counsellor when you have something wrong with you or when someone dies, right? Please change your thoughts on this; I can genuinely say that talking to my counsellor every Thursday of every month for an entire year helped. Everything was about me, how I felt, and what I thought for once in my life. Not my sister.

How ironic is it that if my sister were diagnosed with a physical illness, she and my family would receive income support, pro bono programs and financial assistance, right? But having a mental illness isn’t considered needing that type of support. One appointment with a good physiatrist cost my mum and dad $500! How are families expected to pay this money every month to get their kids some help?

Siblings are affected by having a sibling who lives with mental health issues, and there needs to be more awareness and programs. Every company or organisation’s excuse is ‘we don’t have enough money’, but it doesn’t cost anything to ask someone if they are okay. And setting up a small program to support affected siblings in a primary school doesn’t cost millions. There is no excuse.

If you have a sibling who is experiencing mental health issues and you are struggling, speak up! Yes, they are the ones struggling, but you are equally important.

It’s not all about them.

For most of us, our relationships with our brothers and sisters are the most important in our lives. Sibling relationships can be a great source of mutual support, but sometimes they can be challenging.

When dealing with a sibling’s mental health, there are many emotions, sorrow, guilt, fear, resentment, and anxiety, and sometimes they are hard to deal with, especially all at once. It’s hard to form a meaningful relationship with a sibling when they are preoccupied with their mental health. Take the time to understand what they are going through and build a strong relationship by helping them deal with their issues.

Mental health is often associated as a burden when it’s simply a part of life. However, in 2020, 55% of the world’s population was reported to have some sort of mental health issue. So, it’s a real issue, and it immensely affects siblings.

What have I learnt from living with a sibling with mental health issues?

I find myself asking, what have I learnt from living with a sibling with mental health issues?

My answer is simple:

  1. Be understanding.
  2. Don’t be afraid to talk about it; find trusting support in immediate family members, teachers at school or even a program.
  3. It’s important to take a break as living with someone living with mental health challenges can be immensely consuming; take care of yourself.
  4. Lastly, educate yourself on your sibling’s mental health disorders. You are living with them, and you might as well be familiar with it.

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