Joan R. Landes, MA CMHC
Many times, the secondary effects of mental illness include feeling guilty or worthless for the way their family or friends are affected. I can’t count the number of times my clients have mused, “I’m such a burden. They would be better off without me.” Two important points here.
1. I hope and pray that we all can avoid giving that impression to our loved ones. Please don’t complain about how much therapy costs. Or how much time office trips take. Or how stressed you are because they are stressed. Don’t make this about you. It isn’t.
If they had a magic wand, they would make mental illness go away. They are stuck and suffering and your kvetching only makes it dramatically worse in their eyes. “Being a burden” is one of the cognitive distortions that leads to suicide. So, stop acting and speaking in ways that convey your disappointment or frustration at your loved one for being a “burden.”
2. Adopting the identity as being a “burden” is counterproductive for people experiencing mental illness. When I talk to clients who feel worthless or unlovable because of mental illness, I tell them about the coal mines in England a hundred years ago.
The miners sometimes hit pockets of invisible, non-detectable poison gas. Unable to be seen, felt or smelled, this gas could kill many miners quickly. A clever solution was to bring a caged canary into the coal mine with the men. Because canaries are more sensitive to the poison gases than the humans, it would become drowsy or even unconscious before the miners were affected, thus alerting the men to get out of the dangerous environment while they still had time.
When people manifest mental illness, instead of viewing themselves as “broken”, or a “burden,” I tell my clients that they are functioning like a canary in the coal mine for their family system, or even for society. They are sensitive souls who feel things deeply and manifest the effects of an unhealthy environment first. Maybe parents, or teachers, or government bureaucrats don’t initially realize how distressing the situation is in their respective systems. But if they are smart, they will realize that changes need to be made in the family or social system ASAP.
If not, we will all be victims of the toxic environment. My clients who are manifesting symptoms are not burdens to their family or society. My clients’ challenges are a wake-up call, an early warning system that can activate positive change across the social constellation. People who experience mental illness are not a burden, they are a gift to the rest of us. Just like the canaries in the coal mine.