Witnessing A Loved One Suffer From A Mental Illness Can Be Debilitating. Fortunately, There Are Ways To Help, Writes Janice Phiri 

Family Therapy
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TIME TO HEAL Make therapy a family affair with these easy steps to ensure a tighter family bond.

In South Africa, mental health seldom gets the attention it deserves and it is easy to see this kind of illness is neglected, especially when it comes to family dynamics. For most people, the journey into therapy is a quest they take alone, largely because this requires a lot of personal unlearning and then growth and understanding.

Research Shows

This research concluded that, in 2018, there were 5 180 therapists registered with the Health Professions Council of SA. However, with only 0.9 therapists per 10 000 people, it is easy to understand how help is largely inaccessible.

Black people generally shy away from discussing mental health, and it is something that is often frowned upon, weaponised and demonised to such a degree that getting help is seen as a shortcoming or a sign of weaknesses.

Telling a loved one they may need some help is never easy, but offering support will also help build stronger family structures and future generations.

City Press caught up with Joanna Kleovoulou, a clinical psychologist and founder of the PsychMatters Centre, who has a practice in Bedfordview, Johannesburg. #Trending set out to find the best way to tell your loved one that they need psychological intervention.

According to Kleovoulou, therapy is important in a family dynamic: “The family we are born into influences every aspect of our lives – from our first moments to our last. Family therapy can be useful in any situation that causes stress, anxiety, grief, anger or conflict.

“It can help you and your family members understand one another better and learn coping skills to bring you closer. Also, a mental or physical illness affects the family system, and therapy can help bring understanding, support conflict resolution and create healthy boundaries.

“Family therapy can address specific issues such as addictions – gambling, substances and pornography too – which affect the finances and stability of the home.

“There is the saying that ‘no man is an island’, and this is the ideology of introducing therapy to a loved one through continued work within the family network.”

Witnessing a loved one suffer with a mental illness can be debilitating to see and experience. Research has shown that the impact of a person struggling with a mental illness has a ripple effect on their wellbeing and work performance, and also impairs relationships with partners, children and friends. That is why it is critical for families and friends to step in and help a loved one realise they need to seek counselling.

Signs to Look Out For

According to Kleovoulou, the signs to look out for will be different, but there are some that are generally consistent, such as, the person:

  • May display behaviour that scares you, such as having a temper tantrum or aggressive outbursts;
  • Struggles to take care of themselves or regulate their behaviour. They may ignore basic hygiene, engage in reckless acts or substance abuse and act aggressively;
  • Struggles to think clearly. They may become disoriented, see or hearing things that no one else does, have poor self-belief and self-worth, and forget important facts;
  • May have intense feelings, such as profound anxiety about leaving the house. They may have panic attacks and feel very sad;
  • May have problems interacting with others and may withdraw from the people they love; and
  • May not be able to hold down a job, or they may start getting bad grades at school.

Experiencing trauma, such as a robbery, hijacking, car accident, abuse, the death of a loved one or a near-death experience can also trigger mental health issues.

Kleovoulou says that asking a family member to seek help can be a daunting task, but meeting them half way tends to be a good way to get the ball rolling. Asking them to have an important conversation is always a good place to start, and this may help keep them from becoming overly defensive.

“You need to find a suitable time and private place for both you and your loved one to talk. Avoid talking to them in a public forum, or during family gatherings. Always be kind, careful and empathic.

“Don’t forget to use ‘I’ statements, such as ‘I’m concerned about you’, or ask your loved one to give you or your children the gift of seeking
help. Never use derogatory words such as calling them ‘crazy”.

The history of mental health, and perceptions about it in different communities, means an offer to help might be met with resistance. This is normal, and there are many factors that may stop people from asking for help. “There is a definite lack of awareness or insight that the person you are concerned about is struggling to grasp. Fear of stigma, for example.
“The language used when going to see a shrink, even gender biases, filter into how your family member will receive your offer of help.

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“Going to therapy can be seen as weak, as the person may have a deeply entrenched belief of self-reliance and resistance to seeking help or self-pride. Because of the cost of therapy and the time invested, the decision to begin therapy isn’t always an easy one.”
Even when met with resistance, one should try to push one’s loved one to seek ways to deal with their mental health, because it will only elevate their own sense of happiness, adds Kleovoulou.

There are many benefits to getting therapy – it can be gratifying and liberating.

“We invest a great deal in taking care of our bodies – going to the hairdresser, getting our nails done or having a facial, or spending money on fancy clothing and outings with our friends. However, the best gift we can give ourselves is the gift of healing through psychotherapy,” Kleovoulou says.

“Psychotherapy positively affects our inner and outer lives, which has a ripple effect on society. Psychotherapy helps [us deal] with depression, anxiety and even traumatic experiences. Imagine growing exponentially in your personal life just by finding new ways to do the personal work. Boundaries, communication and conflict resolution are definite pluses too.”

As we work towards a more open, honest and accepting society, we have to first accept that the work starts at home with those we love.

With these tips, your family could be in a completely different place by this time next year.

Or, this could be a call for you to get yourself the help you need.

  • If you or a loved one needs help, call PsychMatters on 011 450 3576 or visit psychmatters.co.za or online or face-to-face therapy. You can also WhatsApp 062 975 8442
  • For people seeking help in the public heath sector, call the SA Depression and Anxiety Group on 011 234 4837 for information on a clinic near you
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Clinical psychologist Joanna Kleovoulou speaks about how best to tell your loved one it’s time to get some help.


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