Mental Health: The role of family relationships in mental health

The role of family relationships in mental health

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Mental health is a critical component of individual, family, community and national wellbeing and prosperity.

The relationships we have with our family can have a significant impact on our health including our mental wellbeing.

Our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, children, grandchildren have significant influence on us across the life span.

As children we depend on our families to meet our basic physical and emotional needs.

As adults our families provide key social support and as older adults we may rely on our younger family members to take care of us as we age.

Families can be a positive influence helping us to grow and thrive in life, however, being part of a strained, dysfunctional family can be detrimental to our mental wellbeing.

How can families promote mental wellbeing?

Our families can be a place where our basic physical and emotional needs are met and we can help meet the same needs for our loved ones.

Abraham Maslow in 1943 described a set of human needs that help motivate us as people and help us to grow to our full potential that still hold true even today.

These needs are:

  • physical needs (food, water, warmth and sleep)
  • safety needs (physical, psychological and financial safety)
  • the need to belong and to love (to love, be loved and the need to belong)
  • self esteem needs (encouragement and affirmation)
  • self actualisation needs (the need to grow as an individual, a sense of autonomy and self direction, having a voice and being able to express oneself)

Families can provide an environment where these needs are met, where we can feel safe and secure, where we can love and be loved, where we feel valued and learn to value others, where we feel respected, where we feel we have a voice and where we feel heard. 

How can families negatively impact mental health?

Stressed, overwhelmed families: When some family members are under excessive levels of stress, this can spill over to their family. Shared stress can affect the quality of our relationships and how our families function

Unsupportive, neglectful families: unmet emotional and physical needs in close relationships can lead to discouragement and distress.

 When our families fail to meet our needs or neglect to meet our needs, when we do not feel safe, when we are unsure of our physical needs being met, when we feel like we do not belong, when we feel unloved and uncared for, this can have a detrimental effect to our mental wellbeing

Abusive families: Many individuals may unfortunately be abused in their families. Abuse in families can be physical, emotional, verbal or financial.

Sadly many children are sexually abused by someone they know, often a family member.

Family environments are often the setting of gender-based violence.

Many of us may feel like we have no sense of autonomy in our family, we may feel as if we have no voice or that our thoughts, input and opinions do not really matter.

This can all lead to poor mental health and wellbeing.

Overinvolved, emotionally enmeshed families: Ideally, families should be where we get emotional support and a sense of belonging, however we do still need to be able to be able to make independent decisions that our family members may or may not agree with.

In some dysfunctional families, family may become over-involved in each other’s lives, dominating and manipulating each other, making it difficult for some members to be able to make autonomous decisions.

This over involvement is not conducive for good mental health.

Overly critical families: Some families tend to be over-critical of each other with little encouragement and many ‘unfiltered’ words.

We can become overfamiliar with each other and lose the very important virtue of respecting one another.

While telling each other the truth is important, it is critical that the truth be told in love.

What can we do as a society and as a nation to support mental health of families?

  • Reflect and become aware of the impact of poor family relationships on mental health within our own individual families. How are you doing as a family?

Are you overstressed or unsupportive or overly critical or toxically overinvolved or even abusive in your family?

  • Concerted effort to improve awareness in communities about mental health and wellness and the impact of family relationships on mental wellbeing.

Families can be a critical part in preventing mental health problems, helping in early identification of mental health problems and providing care and support for those who develop mental health challenges.

  • Develop a multi-sectorial approach identifying and supporting vulnerable families. Family training programs, particularly for young families could help prevent family dysfunction and prevent development of some mental health problems later in life

If you think that you or someone in your family may be struggling with a mental health problem, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

* Dr. Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse is a consultant psychiatrist. Feedback:  Whatsapp: +263714987729

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