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Column originally published Dec 28, 2021

Mental Health Professionals Can Help Families With These Challenges

Question: I grew up in a very dysfunctional family. My older sister was always angry, and she was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. My younger brother has bipolar disorder. They were constantly fighting at home. Once, my sister tried to stab my brother in a fit of rage. I was the “normal” one in the family, and was expected to behave perfectly all the time. That put a lot of pressure on me. I didn’t feel that I could be just a normal kid, and show my frustration. Sometimes, I wish that I was sick also. My parents didn’t know how to handle my two siblings and deal with the conflicts. Is there anything that can help parents of sick children so that healthy ones like me are not harmed as a result?


I am sorry to hear that you grew up in such a dysfunctional family, it was not easy. This could have scarred you permanently. Your parents, like many others, were not equipped to deal with this effectively. It is also not surprising that they expected you to behave perfectly, as you were the normal one without those challenging mental health issues. They must be at their wits end.

You are not alone. What you have described is called Adverse Childhood Experience (ADE). In mid-1990s, US CDC (Centre for Disease Control), in partnership with Kaiser Permanente (a health maintenance organization), conducted an extensive study on ACE and its impact. They looked at a number of issues, including abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual), household challenges (mothers being treated violently, substance abuse in family, mental illness in household, parental separation or divorce, as well as household members being incarcerated), and emotional or physical neglect. They found that ACE is very common; the more issues a person encountered while growing up, the greater the impact was on physical and mental health.

This is not surprising. As a retired paediatrician, I have looked after many sick children during my career. When a child has a life-threatening condition like cancer, parents usually put all their effort to support and care for this child. They often stay with the child in a Children’s Hospital far away from home for extended periods of time. Other children are often cared for by relatives: grandparents, uncles and aunts. This long separation resulted in feelings of abandonment and resentment.

In your situation, it was the serious mental illness of your siblings that caused family disharmony. It must be scary for you to witness the violence. You had suppressed your own needs as a child, trying to be the perfect one, when your parents were busy dealing with those situations. Your parents might not have the tools to deal with them properly. You would have felt neglected; your physical and emotional needs were not met, while your parents were overwhelmed.

Although your parents didn’t neglect you intentionally, the end result is the same. You were traumatized by growing up in an unsafe environment. There are mental health professionals and social workers that can help parents to deal with these challenges. Sometimes, children with mental illness require hospitalization to get them proper care. This can help other children at home, give them a more stable environment to thrive, and time for parents to look after those healthy ones instead of only dealing with mental health crisis. You also could have benefited from counselling at the time, to give you support and tools to maintain mental fitness.

Now, as an adult, you will need to seek help for yourself to deal with all the adverse experience in your life. I would encourage you to find mental health professionals specialized in this area. More importantly, you have to be careful not to pass on the trauma to your children.

Moving forward, you will need to work on forgiveness, forgiving your parents as well as your siblings for what you have gone through. This can be a long process in your journey of healing.