As my colleague pointed out in her piece about misconceptions surrounding mental health conditions, mental illness is incredibly common. In fact, about 1 in 5 American adults are diagnosed with, or treated for, mental illness each year. With odds like that, there’s a very good chance that someone you love is struggling with their mental health at this very moment.
Even though mental health and mental illness is an increasingly common topic of conversation, in the case of a loved one who is suspected to have a mental illness or has a new diagnosis, it may be hard to know where to start.
Fortunately, there are many resources available that can help you better support your loved one and help them receive the assistance they need for the best possible outcome. Reach out as early as possible to groups such as NAMI, NIMH or FERC, county-level behavioral health care services, or the family doctor. Not only will these resources help your understanding of your loved one’s condition, they can help you both better navigate the often-complex mental health system.
What is Mental Illness
We often think about mental health as the opposite of mental illness, but that’s not the case.
Mental health refers to how well you’re able to navigate the world around you. It’s connection and understanding. How we solve problems and overcome obstacles. It’s our overall emotional, psychological and social well-being.
Mental illness is a medical condition that affects how you interact with the world around you, your relationships, even yourself. It’s something within your brain – which can happen as a result of nature, genetics, chemical imbalances, nurture or neglect in susceptible individuals – that affects feelings thoughts, behaviors, social interactions and the way you respond to the world around you.
While things like death, trauma and stress can negatively affect your mental health, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re mentally ill. However, as we’re learning more and more, poor mental health can eventually lead to mental and even physical illnesses.
That’s why it’s so important that people who are going through mental health crises or their loved ones recognize that there is a problem and seek psychiatric assistance, which may include any combination of therapy, medication, education, case management and support.
That last part – support – that’s where you come in.
Here are a few things you can do to be a good advocate and ally for a loved one with a mental health condition:
Educate Yourself About Their Condition
The first step in knowing how to help someone is understanding what they’re dealing with. In addition to general research about their condition, it’s important to talk to your loved one about it and, more importantly, listen to them. Every person experiences mental illness differently; listening and learning will help you gain a greater appreciation for the struggles they face. Understanding of their fears, anxieties and triggers will help you be better prepared to offer support and aid or intervene on their behalf.
Support Their Treatment Plan
As a caregiver or family member, taking an interest in your loved one’s treatment plan and encouraging them to be treatment-compliant can be the difference between stabilization and improvement or deterioration and decompensation. Tell them that mental illness isn’t anything to be ashamed of and how proud you are of them for seeking help. Encourage them to continue with the therapeutic regimen that they and their provider have set. And help them feel that they’re not going through this alone.
Be Respectful of and Patient with the Recovery Process
Recovery isn’t a linear process. There will be successes and setbacks that one must navigate. While your support can improve the chances of recovery, at the end of the day, it’s up to your loved one to do it. Taking a supporting role isn’t trying to take control of your loved one’s recovery process. Nor is it absolving them of any responsibility for their actions. It’s about doing what you can to remove the barriers that stand between illness and recovery without removing their autonomy.
However, if you notice that their symptoms are progressing to a point that they’re becoming a danger to themselves or others, intervene. Help them get immediate medical attention. Sometimes calling the police, as difficult as it is, may prevent injury – or worse – to themselves, yourself, other family members or other members of society.
Separate the Person from Their Illness
While some mental illness, such as schizophrenia, can dramatically affect a person’s personality if left untreated, many don’t have lasting or long-term consequences when treatment compliant.
Think of it this way: If you break your arm, that doesn’t affect the core of who you are. The same goes for a loved one with a mental illness. It’s important to learn to separate the person from the effects of their illness. They may be irritable, sad or difficult, but as hard as it may be sometimes, you have to understand that this isn’t a choice – this is a symptom of a medical condition. When you know that your loved one is actively trying to get better, a little compassion and patience can go a long way.
Take Care of Yourself
Watching a loved one struggle with mental illness is hard, but when you’re actively taking a supporting role in their recovery, it can be downright exhausting. It’s important to be able to give the support they need without letting it consume your life.
Establish a routine that accommodates their illness without revolving around it. Spend time together doing things unrelated to their condition. If you need it, don’t be afraid to reach out to support groups for caregivers and family members of people with mental illness. Just as your loved one needs to know they’re not in this alone, you, as someone tangentially affected by the illness, shouldn’t have to feel like the only one carrying this burden.
And, above all else, don’t lose hope. Most mental health conditions can be stabilized or treated to eliminate symptoms, allowing the affected person to lead a full life. But it takes time, patience and a strong support system.