Living with a mental illness is hard. It can also be hard to love, show support, or live with someone who has a mental illness.
The words “mental illness” encompass a range of very different conditions with widely disparate symptoms, so there’s no one-size-fits-all guideline for the friends and family of people who have a mental illness. But there are some common experiences that many people have when trying to show support for someone who has a mental illness.
A number of questions arise when people attempt to show support for someone with a mental illness, including:
- What do you do when you believe that someone has a mental illness, but they do not?
- How do you handle it when you have reason to believe that someone you love may pose a danger to themselves?
- How should you react to symptoms or behaviors that you find distressing, but that the other person may not be able to control?
- Can you help a person who is suffering to feel better?
- How can you support someone with a mental illness without neglecting to take care of yourself in the process?
Take a look at some suggestions that can help.
Get Informed on How to Show Support
Because all mental illnesses are different – and sometimes present very differently in different people – it’s important to get as much information as you can about the condition your loved one is dealing with.
Look for reputable resources that can give you more than just surface information and stereotypes.
Check into local mental health associations that offer resources and information for friends and loved ones. Not only are they likely to have good information, but they may also be able to connect you with others who have been where you are now.
It can help to learn about the ups and downs of supporting someone with a mental illness and progressing toward recovery from someone who has lived through the experience and may be able to give you an idea of what to expect and what worked for them.
Show Support With Open Dialogues, Avoid Debates
Mental illnesses put a heavy strain on relationships, even between people who love each other very much. Conflict is common for a number of reasons.
Mentally ill people may not believe that they really have an illness or may believe that they have an illness but refuse to seek help or treatment or cooperate with a prescribed course of treatment.
Mental illness is also difficult to treat for a range of reasons.
People who lack insurance or funds may not be able to find or comply with treatment. Treatment can have negative side effects of its own that may not seem worth putting up with to the person with the illness.
Some people simply don’t respond as expected to a given treatment and may need to try several different types of treatment before finding one that works.
In the meantime, the way that their mental illness manifests can be difficult to take for their loved ones. It can be upsetting to watch someone you love suffer when you think they could be doing something to feel better.
Some mental illnesses produce behaviors that can be incredibly frustrating or frightening for loved ones. Conversations about these situations can easily devolve into arguments if you’re not careful.
Do your best to open dialogues and avoid debating and arguing. Set aside the need to be right, win the argument, or accomplish any particular goal. Ask your loved one what they’re thinking and why.
Listen to what they have to say without judgment, and without trying to convince them to change their mind.
Remember that no one asks to have a mental illness – however upset or frustrated you are, your loved one is suffering, and it’s not their fault. They aren’t doing this to upset you.
Know When to Act
You can’t fix another person’s mental illness, and for the most part, you also can’t force them to get treatment or comply with treatment, even if you think it will help.
In large part, you support someone with mental illness by building trust, listening to what they have to say, and continuing to treat them with love and kindness.
But in some cases, it is important to take action, especially when someone you love poses a danger to themselves or other people. Always take the mention of suicide or threats of suicide seriously. Take threats of harm to other people seriously as well.
When psychiatric distress is acute and severe, taking action can save lives. If you fear that your loved one is in imminent danger, reach out to their doctor, contact a suicide hotline like Lifeline, or contact emergency services.
Be aware that your loved one may be angry with you for taking this kind of action, but that’s preferable to the alternative.
Seek Counseling and Support for Yourself
It can be easy to allow a loved one’s mental illness to consume your own life as well as theirs, especially during periods when symptoms are very severe. But you can’t show support effectively for someone you love if you’re not prioritizing your own mental and physical health as well.
One good way to take care of yourself when you’re caring for someone with a mental illness is to seek support and counseling for yourself.
You may feel worried, anxious, angry, and overwhelmed by what’s happening to your loved one, and counseling can help you work through those feelings in a way that’s safe for you and for the person you care about.
When you’re too close to the situation, you might not be able to think clearly about it, and counseling can help provide some much-needed clarity. A counselor may also be able to provide solutions, resources, and problem-solving tools that you wouldn’t have known about on your own.
Don’t be afraid to seek other types of support as well. Talk to other friends and family members of the person with mental illness.
Come up with a plan to provide support for them that doesn’t place all of the burdens on you.
Join a support group to connect with others who understand what you’re going through and can give you support when the person with mental illness cannot.
Your feelings and experiences matter too.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.