What to Do When You Suspect Your Adult Child May Be Mentally Ill

March 9, 2011 at 3:03 pm  •  Posted in Schizophrenia by  •  0 Comments


Anna M. Scheyett, PhD, MSW, LCSW is associate dean at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Social Work. She received her PhD in social work from Memorial University and her MSW from UNC. Her major area of interest, both clinically and in research and teaching, is working with adults with serious mental illnesses.

Dr. Scheyett is  on the Board of  Directors of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).   She has been active in NASW for 25 years; she served on the NASW North Carolina Chapter  Board as member-at-large, secretary, chair of the Social Work/Criminal Justice practice unit, member of the Legislative Committee, and president.   Dr. Scheyett is also involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Council on Social Work Education, and the Society for Social Work and Research. In 2005, Dr. Scheyett received a NC Heroes in the Fight award for community mental health advocacy, and in 2007, she was named NC Social Worker of the Year.

Q.   Dr. Scheyett, what options does a family have when they believe an adult loved-one is mentally ill?

This can be a very frightening and painful time for families.   The first thing to remember is that ignoring your concerns won’t make them go away.   If you have concerns that an adult loved-one has a mental illness, and they are able to listen and talk with you, it is important to talk directly and gently with your loved-one.   Let them know about your concerns, that you are there for them, and that you want to help them get help.   Talk with them about how mental illnesses are just that, illnesses, not weaknesses or flaws. Provide them with information, particularly about how and where to get help.   Offer to go with them.   The most important thing is to let them know you want to support them and that you are going to be lovingly persistent in helping them get help.

The situation gets much more difficult if your loved one has symptoms that interfere with their ability to be aware of their mental illness.   You cannot force your adult loved one into treatment unless they are a danger to themselves or others; at that point, you can petition the court to have your loved one committed to a hospital.   You can consult with a social worker, another mental health professional, or a support and advocacy group such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).   A book that some family members have found helpful is “I Am not Sick, I Don’t Need Help” by Xavier Amador.

In all cases, it is important that you get some support and education for yourself as well.   Find a professional you trust or a support group, learn about mental illnesses, and have a safe space where you can take care of yourself too.

Q.   Is this situation doubly complicated if the loved-one appears to be self-medicating with alcohol or illegal drugs?

Yes, it can be much more complicated.   Substances can cloud judgment and make it even more difficult for your loved one to be able to hear you.   If the self-medicating is with an illegal substance, there are concerns and risks regarding the law as well.    In addition,  the health risks increase with substance use as well, so treatment becomes even more crucial.

Q.   How can a social worker help?

Social workers can help families in a number of ways.   They can be excellent sources of information about mental illnesses, about laws and policies, about resources for treatment and about benefits and entitlements.   They can help families advocate for good services for their loved one.   Social workers can also play huge roles in helping families deal with the feelings of grief and fear and guilt that families may experience when they have a loved one with a mental illness.

In addition, social works  can advocate for policies that provide fair and adequate treatment for people with mental illnesses and that protect their rights and autonomy.   Perhaps most importantly, social workers can convey a message of hope and recovery.   With support, education, respect, and choice, people do recover from mental illnesses and have meaningful lives–support and education are essential and social workers can play key roles.


To find a social worker in your area, please click here.

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