In “Semantic Polarities and Psychopathologies in the Family,” Valeria Ugazio challenges the idea that mental distress, the notion that being mentally ill, whether depressed, obsessive, phobic or schizophrenic is essentially biological.

Ugazio believes that pharmaceutical companies are invested in the belief that mental illness is biochemical because it is in their interest to do so. But more interesting is her idea that this exonerates everyone from responsibility and involvement in the patient’s problem.

Ugazio’s main point is that mental illness occurs when people are not able to choose between altruism and selfishness, dependence and independence, winning and losing, belonging and not belonging.

These issues, she believes, start in the family.  And although Ugazio is not interested in blame, she does trace family behaviour and their stories as the starting point of where mental illness originates.

Through numerous case studies, Ugazio skillfully weaves together a model that makes sense of why mental illness might develop, placing meaningful relation to particular life context.

She highlights how there are many factors involved within the family dynamic and how many opportunities, pitfalls and traps we can fall into when a family member suffers with difficult issues. She also points out that some of the stories themselves are part of the problem.  When a child is told he ‘is this way or that way’, a story is constructed within the family and it becomes difficult for the children to see themselves in another way.

There will always be times within our own family when we would rather avoid addressing difficult and potentially uncomfortable interactions with family members.  These become the opportunities to stay with the difficulties and work through issues directly.

So when you notice something isn’t right with a family member don’t turn away. Instead, turn towards the person in crisis.  This is what reconnects us and lends compassion and understanding to the people we love. That’s where the healing begins.

Shirlee Kay