Having a loved one with a mental illness can be challenging and often confusing. Many times we don’t know where to start in helping them, or even how to know how to help them. Being diagnosed with a mental illness is a learning process in itself and it is no different for those supporting and caring for the ones who are diagnosed. It doesn’t have to be an impossible challenge though. Sometimes very basic steps or actions can be all that are needed. It starts with understanding and acceptance, and builds with education and working together to learn what each individual needs.
Educate Yourself: learn all you can about the mental illness. Learn from reliable sources. Ask the loved one to find research that they feel supports and backs up how they experience their symptoms. Meet with a professional to be educated if needed. Learn about services available and medications. Be aware and educated and it will be easier to understand where they are coming from and why they think, feel, or act the way they do. It will reduce likelihood of insults or causing harm. There is no way to know it all or always do or say the right thing, but being educated will help minimize this.
Set Boundaries: just because someone is diagnosed with a mental illness does not mean that they cannot be accountable for their actions, have responsibility, or treat people appropriately. Setting healthy boundaries of what you expect from them and how you expect to be treated will prevent them from taking advantage of you and teach them healthy skills. It will benefit you both in the end.
Encourage Treatment: at different times and at different stages, getting help or treatment is one of the most difficult things for a person with mental illness to do. It is hard work. It is at times uncomfortable. It is scary. Or sometimes they just don’t think they need it. All of these factors contribute to them avoiding the treatment and help that they need. Encouraging them in a kind, empathetic, and supportive manner will help motivate them to get help and make change, as well as be consistent with follow through when in treatment. You can support this through a number of ways; setting expectations that they get treatment, driving them, going with them, making phone calls when they cannot, and positively motivating them to go.
Set Realistic Expectations: do not expect perfection or change over night. Mental illness is a life long battle. Symptoms may come and go or change, but that does not mean the illness is gone. Setting realistic expectations that do not allow them to remove accountability in their life but also do not push them so hard that they cannot succeed. Finding the happy ground where they are mildly challenged and able to succeed is vital to making both their and your life of the highest quality.
Stay Calm and Share Hope: sometimes having hope or even controlling their emotions can feel nearly impossible for a person with mental illness. Being that rock for them, remaining calm when they are unable to, and holding hope for them that things will get better is the absolute best way that you can support them. It lets them know that they are not alone, provides a healthy model of how to handle distress, and keeps a healthy environment that they need.
Teach and Model Coping Skills: stress is unavoidable so you cannot protect your loved one from it. What you can do is model how to cope with stress appropriately and effectively and teach those skills to them so that they are better able to cope with stress.
Don’t Place Blame: on yourself or the loved one. Nobody is to blame for the diagnosis. In most cases, it was not caused by something someone did. Blaming someone can help you to feel a little more in control but ultimately minimizes what the person is dealing with and takes away from the motivation to get help and make improvements. Understanding what mental illness is allows a person to be invested in getting help and be accountable for their actions and quality of life.
Seek Out Resources/Get Support: Its important to remember that sometimes supporting someone with a mental illness can become overwhelming and it is okay to ask for help. Counseling can help educate you on mental illness, find ways to support someone with a mental illness, and teach you how to balance all of that while still taking care of yourself and getting your needs met. You cannot support anyone if you are not healthy. Caring for yourself is supporting them.