Watching a loved one experiencing mental illness is heartbreaking. You may want to try and do everything you can to “fix” them, but these attempts often leave your loved one feeling even worse.
According to Mental Health America, in the state of Massachusetts:
- 1,157,000 adults are experiencing a mental health illness
- 483,000 adults have a substance use disorder
- 261,000 adults are having suicidal thoughts
- 255,000 adults are not receiving the treatment they need
Whether your loved one(s) is living with an anxiety disorder, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or another mental health issue, there are a few ways to help.
Educate Yourself About Their Mental Health
The first thing you should do is learn about how their mental illness works:
- How it functions
- How it makes your loved one feel
- The treatment process
- How you can be there for them
If you don’t know how a mental illness functions and impacts your loved one, it can be hard to understand the severity of their symptoms. Often, a person’s thoughts and actions aren’t in their control; their unusual or antagonistic behaviors are a by-product of their illness.
Not understanding can cause you to create misconceptions about their mental illness, and prevent you from helping them. For example, if your spouse is clinically depressed and sleeps all day, commenting on their sleep patterns or forcing them to get out of bed and be active isn’t going to make them feel better. Understanding why their depressed can.
Know How to Identify the Signs
Mental illness signs are often easy to identify. The most common ones include:
- Excessive sleep or a change in sleep patterns
- Change in diet; weight gain or loss
- Changes in hygiene
- Extreme mood shifts or feeling “off”
- Social isolation
- Inability to focus or remember things
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
These symptoms usually have a cause, such as getting fired, going through a breakup, or the death of a loved one. When going through a hardship, even the little things can mean the world to your loved one, like making them breakfast or letting them know that you’re there for them.
Don’t Be Overbearing
People experiencing mental illness often feel like they don’t have control of their own lives. This can lead to feelings of helplessness and low self-esteem. The last thing your loved one needs is to be treated that way or “parented.” Instead, they need to be treated with respect.
If they’re drinking too much, don’t give them the third degree or try to hide their alcohol. Just say, “You’re drinking too much.”
Small decisions should be left up to your loved one. They should also play the primary role in bigger decisions, like setting up a schedule to take their medication.
If there’s something they want to do that you think is beyond their capability, let them try. The results may surprise you.
Set Limits and Expectations
This is a little tricky. You should treat your loved one with respect and let them make their own decisions, but you also have to set ground rules. If your twenty-year-old daughter suffers from bipolar disorder and starts exhibiting aggressive behavior or harming her sister, that has to stop immediately.
Set behavioral conditions in your home. For example, you can tell your daughter that she has to take her medication or seek treatment if she’s going to continue living at home. If not, she can find somewhere else to live.
When setting expectations, it helps to make them universal. Let both your daughters know that aggressive behavior will not be tolerated in your home, not just the one experiencing a mental illness.
Understand Your Feelings
Your loved one’s mental illness is not your fault.
It’s common for people—especially parents—to feel shame or guilt for what their loved one is going through. You might think, “I’m bipolar, and I passed my illness onto my daughter,” or “I should’ve gotten them treatment earlier.”
These feelings will get you nowhere.
Multiple complex factors cause mental illnesses, including genetics, personality traits, biology, and events outside anyone’s control.
Encourage Your Loved One to Seek Treatment
There’s no shame in getting treatment for mental illness. A mental health professional can tailor a treatment program specific to your loved one’s needs, whether that includes medication, supplements, or joining a support group.
If aspects or treatment bother your loved one, write them down and contact their physician, or have them contact their doctor directly. Your loved one should be active in their path to wellness.
Also, don’t think twice that contacting your physician is inconveniencing them in any way. They’re mental health professionals. It’s their job to treat their patients.
If your loved one seeks professional treatment to improve their mental health, don’t expect everything to go “back to normal” right away. If they spend several weeks in a hospital or rehab center, they may want to make up lost time by burying themselves in work, taking extra classes in school, or filling up their social calendar. The more they take on, the more likely they are to get stressed out and relapse.
Encourage your loved ones to start slow. Recovery often receives trial and error. Mental illnesses are not static, so you and your loved one should make adjustments as you go.
Acknowledge Their Courage
When someone is going through physical therapy, losing weight, or cancer treatments, we applaud them for their courage. People seeking treatment for their mental health deserve the same acknowledgement.
There’s a stigma about mental illness that needs to go away. Getting back to normal life after coming out of a hospital or rehab center takes enormous bravery. Let your loved ones know that you’re proud of them, and treat them with the respect they’ve earned.
Seek Help for Yourself
You are not alone.
Millions of people have loved ones experiencing mental illness, and helping them get treatment is a long, arduous journey. Find a support group for loved ones who are going through the same things you are. You’ll learn a lot from other people’s experiences, get the support you need, and be better equipped to help your loved one as they’re getting treatment.
You can also contact us. We have an open door and an open heart.