The effect of stigma on family and friends can be overwhelming. As individuals living with mental illness experience the full brunt of the disease, their loved ones experience it right along with them. Denial, anger, fear, and sadness are just part of the emotional roller coaster. Treatment that engages the participation and commitment of supportive family and friends can reap positive outcomes. Both groups can offer great insight about the individual and this insight is invaluable to treatment teams when choosing a course of action. It is also important to remember that family and friends need support, guidance, and education as the individual moves through the process of wellness and recovery.

Most people believe that mental illness is rare and - according to Mental Health America - "happens to someone else." That misdirected thinking is easily debunked by the fact that an estimated 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder in a given year. In fact, mental disorders are common and widespread. Unfortunately, most families are not prepared to cope with the acknowledgment and aftermath of mental illness. They not only have to deal with the manifestation of the disease; they have to deal with the pain and isolation of stigma. The journey is physically and emotionally trying, with all concerned left vulnerable to the opinions and judgments of others.

The journey of a family dealing with mental illness can be long and challenging. External stigma is a challenge however; it can be even more devastating when it comes from within. Self stigmatization can cause individuals to keep family members at a distance, in part, because of misplaced feelings of shame. Someone with diabetes or cancer is less likely to experience that shame and therefore more receptive to the support of loved ones. In spite of the love and bonds that existed before the illness manifested, family and friends who have been negatively influenced by societal stigma as it pertains to mental illness sometimes shun the individual. The consequences of this kind of rejection and isolation can be heartbreaking, especially when the individual is in such a fragile state.

You are not alone. Family and friends often take a back seat to the illness, which leaves them feeling helpless and forgotten. Stigma prevents them from talking about the illness to other family members, friends, colleagues, and clergy. When loved ones embrace and share their experiences, they strengthen their coping mechanisms. There are a multitude of resources that offer support and services for family and friends in communities all across New Jersey.