Families and Serious Mental Illness: Working with Loss and Ambivalence

Jones, David W. (2004). Families and Serious Mental Illness: Working with Loss and Ambivalence. British Journal of Social Work, 34(7) pp. 961–979.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bch123


This paper examines, in terms of a complex loss, the experiences of people who have a family member who suffers from serious mental illness. Whilst partnership between professionals and family carers is clearly being encouraged and is doubtless laudable in the whole area of health and social care, there seem to be serious obstacles to successful collaboration between families and professionals involved in serious mental illness. Part of the reason for this is that the emotional experiences of relatives are not well understood. This paper uses interview material from a larger qualitative study of an ethnically diverse sample to argue that the families of people with serious mental health problems need to be understood as having experienced a complex loss. The loss is complicated by (i) the continuing presence of the person who is felt to have been lost; (ii) feelings of anger (and subsequent guilt); and (iii) feelings of shame. Professionals who work with families need to be aware of the uncomfortable feelings that they are often struggling with. Professionals are in a good position to provide support in allowing those feelings to be acknowledged and to take their place in the dialogue that families need to have if they are to move on from the frustrations of the chronic grief that others have observed (MacGregor, 1994; Wasow, 1995).

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