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The most recent research regarding the effects of mental illness on the family unit has revealed some interesting data. We have always known that when a parent is struggling with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or other mental health issue it has a profound impact on children, partners, and spouses. There is also research indicating that when the person receives treatment for their mental illness, it can have a drastic positive impact on overall wellness for all family members. What researchers wondered is whether or not the opposite might also be true; when a child struggling with mental illness receives treatment could the impact on other family members be just as positive?

If you have ever lived with a child or sibling struggling with mental illness you know how draining it can be trying to navigate mood swings or prepare for unexpected triggers. “Walking on eggshells” is how many parents describe living with a struggling child. It can be exhausting for parents trying to keep a sense of normalcy for siblings who often take a back seat when another child is in need of extra attention. What was clear in this study published by Northwestern University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, is that when a child receives and responds positively to treatment for a mental health condition, other family members report corresponding improvements in mood and overall mental wellbeing.

Part of the reason for these changes may be connected to the social wiring within the brain related to “mirror neurons”. These neurons give humans the social capacity for empathy and allow us to sense the emotions of others. The most basic human relational response is to seek ways to help when a person we care for is hurting, sometimes at the detriment of ourselves or other family members. What is clear is that our emotional connections are intertwined and dependent on one another.

This is one of the reasons it is important to address mental health concerns at their earliest stages, before they become a problem for a child and the family. Here are some signs that you may want to have your child evaluated by a mental health therapist for treatment:

  • Problems prevent your child from functioning at their potential in school or other social situations.

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep most nights.

  • Perfectionistic expectations for themselves or others.

  • Unable to follow rules at school or at home, often in trouble.

  • Difficulty concentrating on schoolwork or other activities.

  • Loss of interest in activities they use to enjoy.

  • Problems take up an hour or more of time during the day i.e. worry, emotional outbursts, compulsive behaviors.


Taking action to have your child seen by a professional is one step a parent or caregiver can take to ensure that mental illness is addressed before it takes hold. Early intervention is very effective and when it incorporates family members, everyone is able to understand and address issues before they become problems.

Written by:

Sonia Combs, Licensed Mental Health Counselor.