Mental Illness in the Family as a Healthcare Professional

June 7, 2021 Nicola Spendlove

Defining your role in mental health support can be tricky in a family situation, especially if you have some sort of professional healthcare background. I had recently qualified as an occupational therapist, and when my brother was diagnosed with chronic anxiety and depression, I put a lot of pressure on myself to be more than just a sister because of that. I wish I could take that back.

Problems Caused by Being a Healthcare Professional When a Family Member Is Mentally Ill

Lack of Objectivity

In a family situation, you can't see the wood from the trees. I see this all the time in my work life -- parents who are trained special needs educators can't seem to process their child's autism diagnosis, experienced nurses feel totally overwhelmed when their parent becomes sick.

While having some professional knowledge of a condition can be helpful on a practical level, no one trains to support clients that we love so deeply it hurts. A certain amount of emotional detachment is necessary to effectively work with a person as a professional (though, of course, this can go too far -- but that's a whole other post). 

Emotional Investment

When my brother was first diagnosed, I went hell for leather trying to be his personal, occupational therapist. I drew out meticulous plans and schedules for him to follow that I hoped would help with his symptoms. I was so emotionally invested in him "getting better" that I would break down crying when he wouldn't engage with the plans -- what kind of a good healthcare professional would do that? It was totally inappropriate of me.

Perhaps you might debate otherwise, but I feel like being a healthcare professional in my career is something that I have to leave at the door when I go to see my brother. When we're together, I'm a sister, and that's my only role. Sure, if he had a specific question about what the current interventions are for those with a similar profile to him, I'd happily answer it, but I would never offer to take him on as a client. There's a reason we aren't allowed to remain on cases at work when we know the patient. For everyone's sake, these two worlds need to stay separate.

Is there anyone reading who has also been in this situation? And if so, what are your views on how a mental health professional should handle mental illness in their family? Leave a comment below, and let's talk.

APA Reference
Spendlove, N. (2021, June 7). Mental Illness in the Family as a Healthcare Professional, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Nicola Spendlove

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