Research Feature: The Well Sibling Experience

Siblings play a major role in our lives. For many people, they’re our first friends and our first enemies. They help to shape who we are as people for better or for worse, and often act as supporters during challenging times. However, when one of the siblings has a mental illness, the relationship between siblings can be drastically altered. Despite the impact that mental illness has on sibling relations and on other siblings in the household, there is little research or understanding of the unique experiences of these ‘well siblings’. It is for this reason that my honours research is focused on the narratives of the siblings of persons with mental illness.

The research that does exist on the topic of ‘well siblings’ is rather limited and focused primarily on quantitative data. Although there is certainly value in knowing statistics around well siblings, they don’t quite capture the stories behind the numbers. So, to address this gap, this exploratory research was started, and data was gathered through a combination of one-on-one qualitative interviews and photo-narratives with five siblings of persons with mental illness. Through the stories shared by the siblings, it became clear that their experiences are incredibly unique and heavily influenced by their own lives, personalities, and circumstances. Therefore, telling their stories and building understanding is so vital.

Nearly all of the participants expressed frustration and feelings of hurt because of the way their sibling interacts with them. This was challenging for them, as they had reported having a positive relationship with their sibling before the onset of their symptoms. When asked about their relationship, three of the siblings shared that they felt that they had, in a sense, lost their sibling because their current personality was so different from the person they knew before the onset of their symptoms. Despite any challenges the participants had with their siblings, they were still concerned about them and expressed fear for their well being.

Although the participants do not currently identify as being a ‘well sibling’, their responses did indicate that they and their families tend to put them a well sibling role. For some, this meant having their mental health overlooked because they were perceived as being well in comparison to their sibling. For others, this meant trying to alleviate the challenges their parents were dealing with by withholding their own struggles and acting well or changing behavior to help accommodate their families’ needs.

Although the research was not designed to focus on the challenges that the participants experienced, their hurt and frustration came out frequently in their responses. For the majority of the participants, anger and frustration played a significant role in their experience as a ‘well sibling’. In one participant’s case, this was anger directed towards the mental healthcare systems and the way that they had let her brother down. For most, the anger was directed towards the hurt their siblings had put them through and at their parents’ previous inattention to their emotional needs. Despite these challenges, each of the participants found various ways to cope with their experiences.

Of course, the experiences of the siblings were not all negative. Every participant regularly showed empathy and understanding towards their sibling and towards others as well. They shared how they had learnt through their sibling not to judge others, in addition to strategies for helping to support those around them. Each of the participants noted various ways in which their mental health literacy had grown because of their experience and the value that this had brought them and others.

While stories on their own are an incredibly valuable thing, it’s also important to consider what lessons can be learnt by centering these stories in research. By gaining better insight into the experiences of well siblings, those who work in the mental health field are better able to provide services that support the families of the person with mental illness, as well as the person themselves. These stories also highlight the importance of peer or family-based supports and the challenges that come with offering these types of informal supports. More importantly, research like this creates a space where the voices of siblings can be heard, something that is too uncommon in the mental health community.

Sibling relationships are complicated at the best of times, and the experiences of well siblings are no exception. The stories heard through this research were ones of resilience, hope, fear, pain, and growth. They are stories that show the importance of siblings in shaping who we are and what we bring to those around us. With that, I would like to conclude by saying thank you to the participants of this study for sharing a part of yourselves with others.