Helping Someone with a Mental Illness
Caring for someone you love who is sick or disabled is never easy. When the illness affects your loved one’s state of mind, the demands placed on you can be especially difficult.
Mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar or anxiety disorders, are biological in nature. This means that they directly affect brain function, making it difficult or impossible for the person to think, reason, feel, or relate to others in a predictable, normal way. As a result, relationships with family and friends can become strained, especially if efforts to help are met with indifference, anger, or suspicion.
Nature, not nurture
Because the words, actions, and choices made by people with mental illness can be so difficult to understand, “an instinctive response is to feel that if they just tried harder or pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, they would get better,” says Joyce Burland, Ph.D., national director of the Education, Training, and Peer Support Center at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “There is a cultural mindset that blames people with mental illness and the families who raised them. Families are not the cause of mental illness. But they can be part of the solution.”
Mental disorders are a leading cause of disability and often strike people during adolescence and young adulthood. If your loved one has recently been diagnosed, it helps to know that most mental illnesses can be treated successfully. Medication, counseling, and other services significantly reduce symptoms and help improve the quality of life for up to 90 percent of people with mental illness.
As a person begins treatment and recovery, the emotional support of family and friends is vital. Coming to terms with the situation may feel overwhelming, however.
“It’s traumatic to learn that a loved one has mental illness, and families go through a process of shock, anger, and grief,” Dr. Burland says. Nevertheless, getting the diagnosis is a critical step. “Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can learn how to help your loved one get treatment and begin recovery,” she says.
Mental illness is a medical disorder, not a character flaw or a sign of personal weakness. Learn as much as you can about your loved one’s particular disorder, then try to understand the challenges he or she faces. Learn about the recommended treatment and how to get it. Remember that you can’t be a therapist for your loved one. Professional help is essential for the person to get better, and your loved one may need your help in accepting that.
Encourage medication use, but be prepared for resistance. Drug treatments for mental disorders have greatly improved, but side effects remain a problem for some people. Many people refuse medication because they don’t think they are ill. Be respectful but persistent in urging your loved one to take prescribed medication. Many caregivers require medication to be taken as a condition for housing their loved one. Likewise, help your loved one keep therapy and medical appointments, and give feedback to doctors who may need to adjust medications.
Remember that the illness affects attitudes and beliefs. When a person says, “I am a total failure” or “I’ll never feel better,” remind your loved one that these feelings are a result of the illness. In cases where a person totally loses touch with reality, Dr. Burland advises, “Don’t argue. Trying to talk the person out of delusions won’t help.” Proper treatment will restore realistic thinking. In the meantime, stay supportive and positive, but set boundaries and rules, especially if the person lives with you.
If your loved one lashes out or becomes agitated, stay calm and quiet. Try to find out what the problem is in a nonthreatening way. If a situation becomes abusive or frightening, “call someone who can help, and get yourself to safety,” advises Dr. Burland. Any threats of violence or suicide should always be taken seriously.
Create a support system
Using all available resources will make it easier to deal with the unpredictability of the illness. For example, keep a list of phone numbers of therapists, doctors, family members, and friends who can help out. Also include the number of a suicide crisis line, substance abuse center, or mental health hospital in case of a crisis. This will help you and your loved one know that there is a safety net of people and resources available at all times. It will also keep the burden of care from resting completely on your shoulders.
Find support for yourself. It is important for you to live your own life as much as possible and take time for yourself and your interests. Your needs are important. It also helps to seek support from others in the same situation. “You need to talk to others who have come through this and who can give you hope,” Dr. Burland says.