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What to Do When a Family Member Has a Mental Illness

Family members can be an invaluable resource for individuals dealing with serious mental illnesses. By learning more about the illness, you can support your loved one through diagnosis and beyond.

If a loved one has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, then you and your family are undoubtedly experiencing a number of concerns, emotions and questions about the disorder and what it all means moving forward.

Serious mental illnesses include a variety of diseases including:

  • schizophrenia
  • bipolar disorder
  • panic disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • major depressive disorder

Although this can be a very scary problem to face, 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 needed.

According to the National Mental Health Association, mental health problems affect one in five people in the U.S.. Moreover, an estimated two-thirds of the people with mental health problems are not receiving the help they desperately need.

Luckily, increased awareness has led to better information!

Keep reading for some practical and useful tips on how to help your loved ones in their time of need.

Encouraging a loved one to seek help

While symptoms of serious mental illnesses vary, the following signs are among the more common:

  • Social withdrawal.
  • Difficulty functioning at school or work.
  • Problems with memory and thinking.
  • Feeling disconnected from reality.
  • Changes in sleeping, eating and hygiene habits.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Extreme mood changes.
  • Thoughts of suicide.

If you’re concerned a friend or family member is exhibiting these signs, try to stay calm. It’s easy to imagine the worst-case scenario, but signs of mental illness often overlap with other problems. Consider whether there are other circumstances that might be affecting the person’s mood or behavior. Did the person recently experience a shock, such as the death of a loved one? Have they recently lost a job or started a new school? 

Regardless of your answers to those questions, 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.

Encourage your loved one to talk to a trusted health care provider. If he or she is hesitant to see a mental health specialist such as a psychologist, suggest a visit to a general physician. Offer to accompany them to the appointment if they’d like. 

If you feel your loved one is in danger of harming himself or herself, or harming someone else, that’s an emergency. Don’t hesitate to call 911. If possible, ask for an officer trained in crisis intervention — many communities have officers on staff who are trained to diffuse a mental health crisis in the best possible way.

photo courtesy of Unsplash

Learn About Their Condition

The first step in helping someone with mental illness is ensuring they’re properly diagnosed by a mental health professional. Many people have preconceived notions about what mental illness looks like but little understanding of the specific symptoms that an illness entails.

In a culture where mental illness, particularly severe mental illness, is so often wrapped up in damaging myths, fears, and misconceptions, it is essential to get a clear understanding of your loved one’s condition in order to offer meaningful support. Today, there are infinite online resources that explore mental illness from both clinical and personal perspectives and investigating these can help elucidate what your loved one is going through.

You may also wish to speak to mental health professionals or accompany your loved one to a therapy appointment in order to learn more and ask specific questions.

This can help you to:

  • Gain a reality-based understanding of their symptoms
  • Break through damaging myths
  • Learn what their treatment options are
  • Better understand their needs, challenges, and prognosis
  • Identify symptoms they may not recognize

Not only does this allow you to more clearly see what your loved one is going through and help them feel understood, it will also likely help to alleviate some of your own anxieties, and give you a sense of direction as you move forward.

It would also be incredibly helpful to read and learn all you can about the mental disorder your loved one is suffering from, namely its symptoms and treatments. Read brochures, books and other dependable mental health resources.

courtesy of Unsplash

Help with Getting Treatment

These conditions are real, so encourage your family member to get professional help. Many people with these conditions can find treatments that really work for them.

The first step is to see a primary care physician or family doctor, then obtain a referral to see a mental health care specialist. If possible, work together to compile a list of questions to take to the appointments, and go along with them for. This helps to make them feel like they are not alone in this process. It’s important to realize, however, that you cannot make the person get treatment.

Help them to keep records of their symptoms, treatment regimes, progress and setbacks, and support their prescribed treatment plan.

Offer Practical Help

Start dialogues, not debates.

If your family member doesn’t agree she or he has an illness, talk about it; find out why they feel the way they do. Even if your family member has difficulty telling you what would be helpful, asking how you could support, demonstrates you don’t think you know best (even if you believe you do). It gives room for empowerment and self-awareness to take root.

See if the requests are doable. Be honest with what you can take on. Once the discussion begins, keep it going. People’s needs shift with the path of the illness. Listen without trying to change them or their mind. Focus on building trust and rapport.

Look into the financial aid that your loved one may qualify for, and if necessary help them to find suitable housing. Make use of vocational rehabilitation, medication assistance and any community services that may be available.

photo courtesy of Unsplash

Provide Emotional Support

Offer your unconditional love and support, together with reassurance and hope for the future. This may be difficult at times, as the disorder will affect their attitude and beliefs, leading to confused or negative thinking. With professional help, your family member may realize that this kind of thinking is a symptom of the illness.

People with depression may need help with everyday tasks and sticking to a daily routine. Try to be there even if they do not want to talk, and keep offering kind words.

On the other hand, someone experiencing a manic episode is likely to be highly active. You may need to ask other family members, friends or mental health professionals to intervene. If your loved one becomes dangerous, get help nearby or call 911 or your local police department.

Take Care of Yourself

This is essential for you to be able to help support your loved one. The burden of dealing with a chronic and severe illness within a family is an enormous stress and the feelings that arise, conflicting. Build a network of support around yourself, including your most understanding friends and relatives, and consider joining a support group or undergoing therapy of your own.

Try to stay realistic – your loved one may well recover, but it will probably happen very slowly. Nurture a positive, hopeful attitude by taking time out for yourself and staying aware of your own needs. Make sure you are able to relax and spend some time on the things you enjoy.

Don’t underestimate or play down your problems – remember you need plenty of help and comfort to support the person you care about.

The healthier you are, the better equipped you become to handle demanding situations.

Have Realistic Expectations

It is natural to want your loved one to recover as quickly and completely as possible. Chances are that you have thought a lot about what life would be like if your loved one got better and everything went back to normal, and that vision may be very specific. It is also common for families to get excited about each new treatment, imagining that it will bring a swift cure and everything will be okay again.

However, supporting someone with severe mental illness means having realistic expectations of what their recovery process looks like and accepting them where they are.

As Victoria Maxwell, a writer who has been living with bipolar disorder for two decades, says, “The recovery process is not a straight line, nor is it one that happens quickly.”

If Hospitalization is Needed…

When symptoms of the disorder become severe, it may be necessary for the person to be hospitalized, to help them return to stability. Ideally, research your local hospitals beforehand. Investigate their inpatient and outpatient services, and whether the person’s insurance or Medicare/Medicaid covers hospitalization. If not, find out about community or state-run facilities. Preferred hospitals, medications and treatment methods could be discussed in advance. When your loved one is in hospital, be assertive and make sure they receive the best treatment.

photo courtesy of Unsplash

Helping Children with Mental Disorders

We know what it takes to keep a child physically healthy—nutritious food, exercise, immunizations – but the basics for good mental health aren’t always as clear.  The first “basic” is to know that children’s mental health matters.  We need to treat a child’s mental health just like we do their physical health, by giving it thought and attention and, when needed, professional help.

If your child is suffering from a mental disorder, they will require a great deal of patience and understanding. It is essential to find a doctor you can rely on, and explain to your child that you are working together to help him or her feel better. Family counseling may be useful, as would meeting up with other families affected by the disorder.

Learning positive coping strategies and relaxation techniques may help your child. This may include self-expression through art, music, writing or play. A stable routine and structure at home will provide a secure base for your child, and try not to blame yourself.

Keep Your Head Up

Finally, don’t give up hope because treatment for mental disorders can be effective, and many patients can live a normal life. Keep working with your loved one and their doctors to find treatments that work, and keep reminding your loved one that you are there for them.

In the end, your experience navigating your child’s mental illness will be personal to you. While it’s almost inevitable that you’ll make mistakes along the way or react poorly at times, you have to be able to forgive yourself.

You will likely experience a combination of many conflicting feelings along the way, and that’s okay. You are not alone—there are many resources at your disposal to help you navigate this tricky time in your relationship.

Just remember: it’s a process.

photo courtesy of Unsplash
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