Approximately, 1 in 5 of us lives with a mental illness. This means every one of us has a family member or loved one affected by mental illness. Like any other health problem, someone with a mental illness needs all of our love and support.
Mental illnesses are disorders that affect a person’s mood, thoughts or behaviors. Mental illnesses include a variety of disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.
It’s entirely normal to experience many emotions when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness. Guilt, shame, disbelief, fear, anger, shock and grief are all common reactions. Acceptance can take time, both for the diagnosed individual, and for you as well as other family members and friends. That acceptance happens at a different pace for everyone. Be patient with yourself and others. Although they can be scary, it is important to remember that these disorders are treatable. Individuals diagnosed with these diseases can live full, rewarding lives, especially if they seek treatment. Having a diagnosis and treatment plan can sometimes help to relieve stress in the family and start moving recovery forward.
Support from family and friends is a key part of helping someone who is living with mental illness. This support provides a network of practical and emotional help. These networks can be made up of parents, children, siblings, spouses or partners, extended families, close friends, co-workers, coaches, teachers, church members and church leaders.
One of the most important things you can do to support a loved one with a mental illness is to educate yourself. The more you learn about what to expect and treatment options for your loved one, the easier it will be to provide the right kind of support and assistance. Just like people need to take medicine and get professional help for physical conditions, someone with a mental health problem may need to take medicine and/or participate in therapy in order to get better.
If you notice that a family member is exhibiting symptoms that their mental health may be affected such as verbalizing, writing or hinting at thoughts to harm him or herself or others, talking about death and dying, rapid mood swings, confused thinking or irrational thoughts, aggressive behavior, inability to complete daily tasks and poor hygiene among others, don’t let your fear of a diagnosis prevent you from encouraging your loved one to seek help. Start by talking to him or her. Express your concerns without using alarmist language or placing blame. You might say, “I’ve noticed that you seem more stressed than usual,” or “I’ve noticed you don’t seem like yourself lately.” Then back up those statements with facts, pointing out changes in hygiene or daily activities, for example.
Ways that you can support a loved one with a mental illness:
Encourage your loved one to talk to a trusted health care provider or take them to the healthcare provider.
If you feel your loved one is in danger of harming himself or herself, or harming someone else, that’s an emergency. Take them to the doctor or emergency room immediately.
Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of the illness so that you are able to recognize when your family member might be showing signs that his or her illness is not well controlled.
Medications can be helpful for controlling symptoms of many mental illnesses but they might take a while to become effective, and medication alone is often not enough to keep these illnesses in check. Encourage your loved one to take advantage of other resources, such as peer support groups and individual and family therapy, skills training, etc.
When a loved one is living with a mental illness, it’s easy to want to take charge. That’s often especially true when the person is your own child or partner. But taking on complete responsibility for him or her isn’t healthy for either of you. Individuals with mental illnesses are more likely to thrive when they are allowed to take appropriate responsibility for their own lives. Instead of driving your loved one to every appointment or errand, for instance, help him or her get on the bus and learn the routes. Rather than preparing every meal for your loved one, teach him or her how to cook some simple, healthy meals.
Individuals with mental illnesses still have an identity, and they still have a voice. Engage your loved one in open and honest conversations. Ask how they’re feeling, what they’re struggling with, and what they’d like from you. Work together to set realistic expectations and plan the steps for meeting those expectations.
Recognize and praise your loved one’s strengths and progress. Research shows that compared to offering positive support, repeatedly prompting, or nagging people with mental illnesseses to make behavior changes actually results in worse outcomes.
Unfortunately, people living with mental illnesses still experience stigma, misconceptions and discrimination. While that can be a difficult reality, the fact is that people diagnosed today can expect better outcomes than ever before. Medications have improved, and new evidence-based therapeutic interventions can have powerful and positive effects. So, try to stay positive. One of the most important things you can do to support a loved one with serious mental illness is to have hope.
Ms. Odelia Thomas
MSc. Clinical and Counseling Psychology