“My sister’s anxiety and depression made me furious at times. However, with time I realised that she was not always in control of her behaviour,” says Shweta Aggarwal. Her sister, Parul Aggarwal suffered from sudden erratic mood swings, anxiety, and depression in childhood.
Shweta never asked her to get over it or snap out of it. “I only asked her how I could be of help to her during those episodes.”
On her part, Parul, now 29, desperately tried to prevent her family from witnessing her struggle with depression. “I would starve to stave off the paralysing feeling. My elder sister could relate to how I was feeling, and I always wept when she did that,” she added.
“It can be easy to merely cut ties as an adult or ignore them as a child when you have a sibling who is dealing with serious mental health issues,” shares Dr Ajit Dandekar, psychiatrist at Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital in Mumbai. Severing ties with one’s family is a common way to deal with the strain of trauma, mental illness, and challenging family relationships. “Due to the strain and difficulty of dealing with your sibling’s trauma, you can end family bonds and your sibling may also become disengaged,” he adds.
Like Shweta, caregivers can easily feel frustrated by behaviours linked to mental illness. The key rule of thumb according to experts for siblings who are caregivers is to treat their sibling’s condition as a distinct component from the rest of their lives. It is important to keep in mind that mental illness is not anyone’s fault and is far more than just feeling sad. “The ability to let go of expectations about how your sibling should behave (in accordance with social norms) requires an understanding of their condition. Holding onto expectations — and expecting your mentally ill sibling to comply — can strain your connection and worsen their symptoms,” explains Dr Dandekar.
As time progressed, with therapy early on, Parul has now learnt to adjust to her erratic mood swings and deal with her low feeling. “It can still be challenging to stay on top of it. None of my family members had time to process my mental health difficulties, except my sister,” she says.
Managing a sibling
One can aid and offer support by staying involved once the sibling has been initiated into therapy. An effective strategy to support the development of healthy relationships is through family counselling during treatment. “See it as an opportunity for the sibling to put the social and relationship skills they are acquiring in therapy into practice. An opportunity for their growth,” says Dr Dandekar.
When your sibling is prepared to stop receiving treatment, be helpful by assisting with the adjustment to life at home.
“Engaging with family members is one of the most crucial things your sibling can do to start building stronger relationships and mental wellness. Healthy familial ties aid in reducing the effects of trauma in childhood and aid the victim in coping as an adult,” elaborates Dr Dandekar, saying that you need to encourage your sibling to interact with others in different ways.
“Help them reconnect with old acquaintances, find employment, try out new activities, and simply venture outside frequently to interact with others,” added Dr Dandekar.
“My suggestion to everyone is to try and defuse a crisis if it arises when you and your sibling with a mental disorder are out together and watch your tone when speaking to them because it can make matters worse,” says 35-year-old Shweta.
Take care of one’s mental health
Only if one is mentally sound will they be able to support the sibling in need. Such issues are tough for the family as everyone is affected by relationship trauma. The effects of a sibling’s trauma are severe enough to stress out the entire family, even if they are not aware of it. “Make sure to attend to your own mental health needs. Spend time with your own friends and do activities you like while taking breaks from your sibling as necessary,” points out Dr Dandekar.
Get enough rest, move around, and concentrate on eating healthy. Consider seeing a therapist if you discover that you continue to experience tension, anxiety, or depression.
It should be noted that one is affected by a sibling’s turmoil whether they choose to engage or not. “Assist them in getting over their trauma. Both of you will be healthier and happier if you support the treatment, work on your relationship, involve other family members, and take care of yourself,” Dr Dandekar adds.