After my last column, “Invisible battle: Mental illness remains undertreated,” I received several emails from distressed readers inquiring about how to help a loved one experiencing severe and overwhelming mental and emotional challenges. One reader was worried about his seemingly depressed wife of 20 years who had withdrawn from her family, including their young son. Another came from a woman whose childhood friend had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder after barely surviving a suicide attempt.
Friends and family often feel a combination of worry, frustration, guilt, confusion and powerlessness; the closer they are to the person, the more acutely they feel the weight of their illness. While each situation and diagnosis has its own particular challenges, here are 10 basic guidelines to help them, while maintaining your sanity.
1. Encourage the person to seek treatment. While most mental illnesses are manageable with therapy and/or medication, studies show that one of the greatest barriers to treatment is not access to affordable care, but people’s misguided belief that they can handle it on their own. Not only is this unlikely, delaying care usually prolongs and worsens symptoms.
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2. Get educated. If you know your family member or friend’s diagnosis, try to learn as much as you can about their condition so that you can understand its symptoms and causes, know what you might expect and recognize signs of deterioration. The National Alliance of the Mentally Ill is one of many organizations that offer educational programs and resources for family and friends.
3. Don’t play doctor. Tempting as it may be, once you’ve become educated, don’t try to be your loved one’s therapist, even if they refuse to get help. Understanding the illness doesn’t make you qualified to treat it. Additionally, assuming this role can place undue stress on your relationship; you may feel frustrated with the person because you are not “succeeding,” while he or she may feel either feel resentful of you, or guilty about the change in the power dynamics.
4. Don’t withdraw. Even though a person may be withdrawing from you, you don’t have to withdraw from them. In fact, doing so will only make things worse. Continue to offer love and support, including invitations to activities. Sometimes a simple gesture – asking your wife if she wants a hug, texting your friend that you’re thinking about her – can provide invaluable reassurance that you still love them and keep them engaged with the world outside themselves.
5. Try to imagine the person suffering as healed and whole. Many people suffering from depression and bipolar disorder are highly sensitive to body language and concerned about the way they come across to others. Their biggest fear is that they are somehow broken. If you treat them this way, it will reinforce this false belief. Remember, people with mental health issues are not defined by their illness. Interacting with them as you would anyone else will help remind them of that fact. 6. Create a support team. When possible, try to “recruit” other family members and friends who also check in regularly with the distressed person. This will help you get a more complete picture of your loved one’s mental health status and provide you with much needed support.
7. Watch for sudden changes in behavior. Learn the warning signs of deterioration such as a manic episode at Save, and the steps to take in response. Keep a clear, open and direct line of communication between you and enlist the team to help. If the person says she wants to kill herself, take her to an emergency room or call 911.
8. Take care of yourself. Caring for a loved one with mental illness can be emotionally taxing. Make sure that, in your concern for your loved one, you don’t neglect yourself. Continue to maintain healthy habits and engage in activities that make you feel good, including talking to a therapist if necessary.
9. Kids need help, too. Children often feel responsible for their parents’ suffering, and experience emotional neglect. Professional support can help them understand what’s happening while offering a safe space to share their thoughts and feelings.
10. Accept your limitations. For a person to heal, they have to want to get better. You can be the best spouse, child or friend, and a mentally ill individual can still make heartbreaking choices.
Kim Schneiderman’s book, “Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life,”is being published in the spring. Email your questions firstname.lastname@example.org check out her website,Novel Perspective.