SUPPORTING A LOVED ONE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS
Updated: Mar 5, 2020
Blog created with the information from our #mentalhealthmonday live with Rachel Tuchman (originally aired on July 22, 2019) compiled by Arielle Jacobowitz.
Everybody has mental health, similar to physical health (like someone can be in good physical condition or bad physical condition in the same way that they can be in good mental shape or bad). Not everybody has mental illness.
Genetically, some people are more susceptible to mental illness, like people are more predisposed to contracting medical conditions. Just because someone has it in their genes, does not necessarily mean that they will get a mental illness though... but if they do, just like physical illness is generally treatable, mental illness is also treatable.
If you got a cold, you would make sure to take care of it at the first signs of it, so it doesn’t turn into a respiratory infection or possibly pneumonia. A bit of self-care, rest and chicken soup will go a long way to prevent a cold from turning into something harder to treat. When you start to see signs of mental illness, it’s really important to take care of it as soon as possible.
One can live a rewarding and fulfilling life with a mental illness if that person has the proper treatment and the right support. In fact, many people who have mental illnesses live much more mentally healthy lives than some people who don’t have a mental illness (and neglect their mental health).
What are some things you might be looking for if you think someone in your family has a mental illness?
Be aware if the person is experiencing social withdrawal. If someone starts pulling away, is having difficulty functioning at school or work, or is having trouble pulling it together, this may be a sign of mental illness.
Look for changes in sleep and eating patterns, memory trouble and extreme mood changes such as high anxiety and irritability.
If you do see these things, don’t freak out! Sometimes these things overlap with other problems. Look at this person’s life circumstances as a whole, because maybe the person is just going through something stressful in his life.
How do you encourage a loved one to get help?
Use gentle language when talking to the person. Say things like, “You don’t seem like yourself lately” or “I’ve noticed you seem stressed out”. Make sure to back up your statements with facts so that the person can’t just deny it and push you away.
Don’t blame the person by saying something like, “I think there's something wrong with you”. Your family member has to feel that you’re coming from a place of love, not from a place of malice. If you tell someone to go talk to a therapist it may close them off and stop them from listening to your advice in the future. Many people are more willing to speak to their family doctor first. If this is the case, offer to go with them to the doctor, or to go with them to therapy, if they are willing. If you think it’s an emergency though, call 911 and get them help.
What are some things you may feel when you find out someone you love was diagnosed with mental illness?
You might feel guilt, shame, disbelief, fear, anger, or grief when you find out someone was diagnosed with mental illness (or a mix of other emotions that would be all valid).
It’s important not to forget that the person is still the same person you have known and loved. Their mental illness doesn't define who they are. Once their mental illness is under control, they can get back to who they truly are (and usually an even more incredible version of themselves, since they will have invested so much time into their self-development). Sometimes people say desperate statements like, “I feel like I lost them!” However, that is not accurate. If a person you love has a mental illness, and is acting in ways that are unrecognizable, it may take time to come to terms with, but with unconditional love, patience and acceptance, will in time, allow for loved ones to come back to themselves (hopefully healthier than ever) and relationships to repair.
Educate yourself about what the family member is going through so that you know what to expect, and can give the right kind of support.
Why is your own self-care important if you are dealing with a loved one with mental illness?
You can’t give support if you are not giving that to yourself. We tend to neglect ourselves in these situations, but this is one of the worst things you can do.
Talk to a therapist yourself to get support when dealing with a family member with mental illness. Keep up your relationships with your friends and family. Make sure you are giving enough time to your other kids, if you are dealing with a child with mental illness. Remember that most people with mental illness will improve over time and your behavior makes a huge impact on their recovery.
How should one deal with a spouse who has mental illness?
Make sure to remain a supportive partner. Instead of getting angry at your spouse, help them fight the diagnosis. People tend to get angry and blame their spouse for the issues that mental illness causes. It is important to stick by them instead of blaming them. Resist the urge to say “try harder”, to say “you’re not going to therapy enough” or “you’re not taking your medicine”. It is important to remember that this person can’t control their mental illness, just like someone with asthma can’t control asthma. They need to learn to be on top of these things on their own.
What should I be more aware of?
Remember to be patient, and that recovery takes time.
You might try to take charge by demanding to speak to the psychiatrist or to help plan the appointments. But let the person dealing with the mental illness be in charge (unless you are dealing with a minor). When we take over, that stifles the person who is trying to deal with their mental illness. Remember that that person still has a voice. Ask them what’s going on? How can I help? Do you want me to go to the therapist with you or do you want to go alone? Treating them like a lunatic is so harmful for them. It is your job to provide support, not to fix them.
Also, don’t take symptoms personally. It’s not about you!!
Think about it like a virus; if you get offended every time your child throws up on you from a virus then you’re in for a lot of disappointment. It's the same thing with mental illness. When the symptoms come up, you must remember that it’s all part of the mental illness and it isn’t a personal attack on you.
What should one do if their loved one refuses to get help?
An adult is allowed to refuse help. It may be helpful to discuss with them how treatment can be effective. You can try to explain to them that you can’t be around all the time, especially at crazy hours, but getting treatment might help with those problems. The person might have serious concerns that people will find out, that treatment won’t work or that they can’t afford it, which are all totally understandable. Sitting down and talking about their concerns may help them feel more relaxed and clear-headed in dealing with these issues.
As a community, what can we do?
We must try to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness because many people are too scared to get help, fearful that people will find out.
We must work on becoming less judgmental and become more open to talking about mental illness. People will be less scared to get help, and others will be more willing to provide support if the stigma is broken. No one chooses mental illness, and if we can understand that, then people will be more willing to get the help that they need.
Watch another great live by Rachel Tuchman that can give you a deeper understanding about the difference between mental health and mental illness. This was our first live ever.