The other brother: Experiencing life as a “well-sibling”

“Come on guys, we’re going to be late for our reservations,” Nancy Erdlen yelled to her four boys as she searched frantically for her purse.

Shoving each other, Tim, Matt, Mike and John, ages 7, 8, 9 and 10, came running down the stairs and into the living room.

Nancy stared at Matt impatiently.

“Why don’t you have on your socks and shoes Matty,” she asked. “We’re going to be late.”

Matt reluctantly hurried over to the front door where his socks and shoes were and took a seat on the stairs. He peered down at the socks for a moment and then at his feet. He paused and as he took a deep inhale, he slid the left sock on—a success. Now it was time for the hard part. As the top of the right sock reached around his ankle, he collapsed to the ground and began to scream.

“Are you kidding me?” bellowed John as he stomped up the stairs. “Can we have one normal, peaceful day in this house? All I want to do is eat.”

Mike followed him, attempting to calm him down so he would not further upset Matt, but was unsuccessful.

John slammed the door to his bedroom. Everyone in the house could still hear him cussing and screaming. And then suddenly there was a loud bang—the sound of him putting yet another hole through his wall.

Nancy, with a look of exhaustion and disappointment in her eyes, rushed to comfort Matt. She wrapped him in her arms and held him there for almost two hours before he began to calm down. This would be the second time they would have to cancel dinner reservations that week.

For the Erdlen household in Windham, New Hampshire, a night like this was a pretty regular occurrence. This is because John and Matt both suffer from a SMI, or serious mental illness. They, along with six percent of the U.S. population, fall under this classification that includes major depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Both diagnosed at an early age, John struggles with bipolar disorder, an illness characterized by debilitating highs and lows, while Matt suffers from a combination of bipolar disorder and sensory integration dysfunction, a condition where the brain has trouble interpreting and responding to information that it receives through the senses, causing essentially a sensory overload.

While the effects of mental illness have been well researched and documented, little has been said about the siblings of the mentally ill. The sad reality for many of those who have a sibling that suffers from a mental illness is that they are left feeling a pressure to be normal—a phenomena called the well-sibling syndrome.

Mike Erdlen, who is now 24, is no exception.

“I am not a very openly emotional person and never have been,” he explained sternly. “I’m close to the opposite of how they are. I am extremely closed-off because they were open faucets all the time. I never wanted to deal with it and didn’t want to add to the stress so I just found it easier to internalize how I felt.”

From as early as Mike can remember, John and Matt have struggled with their illnesses—Matt’s episodes happening almost daily.

“We would go out and literally buy socks without seams so we could go out and do the thing we had planned for later that day,” he explained, chuckling at how extreme it must of sounded. “Typically, that still wouldn’t work. He would just fall to the floor and lay there for hours. If he put anything with a seam on, it could happen and it did almost daily.”

As Mike made his way to the kitchen to grab a beer from the fridge, he recalled the most recent episode he experienced with John when they were living together at the University of New Hampshire five years ago.

“We had just gotten off a double from work and we were arguing over rent, bills, the house being dirty—just typical daily things,” he said as he took a long sip of his beer. “We were just sitting there talking and he was standing across from me and all of a sudden his eyes just lit up with flames and he punched me right in the face.”

Growing up in this environment often made it difficult for Mike to express his own problems to his parents. With the nearly constant heightened tension in the air and the looming fear of setting one of his brother’s temper’s off, he typically kept to himself.

“I always felt like I had to walk on eggshells,” he said while glancing down at his fingers. “It would be a lie to say that I never felt like my problems were less important in comparison to theirs, but my parents did the best they could. Their needs definitely came first though.”

This feeling is not unique to Mike as psychologist Diane Marsh explains in her book, Troubled Journey.

“As hard as parents may try, and they do, to meet the needs of their well siblings, time and energy are simply finite,” Marsh told NPR. “And so siblings often feel like the forgotten family members. Everyone else’s problems are more important than theirs.”

Although Mike felt that his life was trivialized at times because of his brother’s ailments, he always tried to be as supportive as possible. With the pressure of four boys alone combined with the challenge of two mentally ill children, in Mike’s eyes, his parents did all that they could do.   

“It definitely became unbearable at times,” he explained somberly. “There were some points where it would either be the fifth or sixth hour in a row, or the fifth day in a row where we couldn’t leave the house and I was over it. But it was always understandable. There was never a time I really felt neglected on purpose.”

As understanding as he may be, Mike acknowledges the fact that who he has become as a person has been heavily shaped by his experiences growing up with Matt and John, using adjectives like introverted, weird and passive to describe himself.

“I think with how over the top both of them were, I just don’t experience extreme emotions,” he said as the ends of his mouth curled into a slight frown. “I don’t think I have ever experienced anxiety. I rarely, if ever panic. It’s definitely taken a tole on my capacity for emotions and being able to talk openly about it.”

Unfortunately for well-siblings like Mike, this kind of desensitization is very common. Marsh’s co-author Rex Dickens, who himself is the brother of three mentally-ill siblings, explained that brothers and sisters of the mentally ill often become “frozen souls” over time.

“You sort of shut down, emotionally, in part of your life, and that carries over to other areas,” Dickens told NPR.

To the outsider, Mike’s experience growing up may seem like a burden, but to him and his family it has created an opportunity over time to become closer—and based on research he’s right. According to Marsh, there is evidence of stronger family bonds and commitment within families that have one or more mentally ill children.

“I think going through all of that together made us able to be completely comfortable around each other because we’ve seen the true colors. I would argue that we have one of the closest families that I know, even though half of us are crazy. Well maybe all of us,” he laughed to himself.

College students obsessed with success, too stressed to obtain it

Countless studies show that there is currently a mental health epidemic facing college students across the nation.

A survey conducted by the American College Counseling Association, or ACCA, found that more than half of college counseling visitors have save psychological problems, an increase of 13 percent in two years.

Parallel to other national college mental health data, the survey also concluded that anxiety and depression, in that order, are the most common health diagnoses among college students.

According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide is the number 2 leading cause of death among those ages 15-24 and that the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults has increased “modestly but steadily” since 2007.

Over the past two decades, several universities across America have experienced what psychologists refer to as “suicide clusters,” which is defined as multiple deaths in close succession and proximity.

In 2015, Tulane University lost four students to suicide and Appalachian State lost three.

Penn State had six students commit suicide over a 13-month stretch from 2014-2015.

From 2003-2004, 5 New York University (NYU) students leapt to their death. Cornell lost six students to suicide from 2009-2010.

And according to Kelsie Miller, a Counseling Outreach Coordinator for the Students Helping Others Reach Excellence (SHORE) program on Coastal’s Campus who spoke with Chanticleer reporter, Genelle Thompson, CCU has also seen its share of student suicides over the last 5 years.

With a majority of these suicide clusters happening at top-ranked schools, it is easy to speculate that the infamous high-stress, hyper-achieving environment that many ivy-league schools are known for is linked in some way.

Director of Counseling and Psychological Services for the Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization geared towards promoting emotional health and preventing suicide, and the Associate Director of Gannett Health Services at Cornell University Gregory T. Eells told HuffPost Live, that this could be due to something he calls “social perfection.”

Eells explained that because today’s younger generation are so attuned to social media, many feel the need to appear perfect across various platforms, which can potentially be as damaging to the person posting the image as it is to the people engaging with it.

“Social perfection can be a very toxic concept because it’s something that we internalize,” said Eells. “It’s not as if you really think I have to be perfect. It’s that I think that you think I have to be perfect.”

He explained that striving to be perfect causes one to miss out on the chance to improve oneself through recognizing personal imperfections.

“Part of being human is that we all make mistakes,” said Eells. “We really can develop a growth mindset, which is when there are those setbacks, they’re opportunities for growth. They don’t mean you’re a failure, they don’t mean that you’ve done something wrong. They’re an opportunity to learn and develop some sense of resilience and develop some adaptability.”

This feeling of a need to achieve perfection that many college student’s currently face has created a shift in the way young adults handle conflict and cope with challenges.

Counselors at various colleges across the nation have reported noticing this change and have concluded that many college students no longer know how to fail.

Based on an article published in Counseling Today, a publication of the American Counseling Association, helicopter parenting is partly to blame.

This style of parenting describes a parent, or parents, who have a “helicopter-like tendency to hover over children and swoop in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble.” This parenting style ultimately prevents children from developing “independence and resiliency,” thereby hindering them both emotionally and academically, later in life.

A combination of being raised by overprotective parents and being surrounded by culture of hyper-achievement, there is no mystery why mental illness and suicide rates among adolescents and young adults are on a constant incline.

The sad reality is that national data on campus suicide and depression show that one in four adults experience mental illness in a given year, two-thirds of students who are struggling do no seek help or treatment and more teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from all other mental illnesses combined.

Because of the prevalence of these issues among college students, it is important for their peers, as well as faculty and staff, to know the facts, warning signs and how to help.

Coastal’s Counseling Services provide several different outlets to aid with mental illness and suicide prevention, but students must take the first step to get help.

October is suicide prevention month, so be sure to be aware of the facts and keep an eye out for awareness events hosted by COAST, the Counseling Outreach Advocacy Student Team and Counseling Services.