How to Support a Loved One with Mental Illness

Unlike cancer, lung disease, diabetes or other disorders that have a visible effect on the body, mental illness may not be apparent to the general public. Yet if you’re close to someone who suffers from depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder, you know that the effects of a psychiatric condition can be as devastating as the effects of a physical disease. It’s not always easy to support a friend or family member who’s mentally ill, especially if the disorder makes them irritable, manipulative, combative or chronically depressed. With compassion, education and the help of qualified professionals, you can offer your full support without sacrificing your own well-being.

Understand the Illness

In order to provide emotional support to someone with mental illness, you must understand the disorder and how it affects their thoughts and actions. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), common myths about mental illness may present barriers to empathy and understanding.

In order to help your relative or close friend, you must know that:
  • Mental illness is a medical condition that cannot be cured by willpower or a stronger character.
  • Mental health disorders can affect people from all walks of life, in any age group or socioeconomic category.
  • Mental illness is treatable; in fact, 70 to 90 percent of people who receive treatment have reduced symptoms and can enjoy a full, independent life.
  • Substance abuse often accompanies mental illness, but the exact relationship between addiction and mental health disorders is not clearly understood.

Educating yourself on your loved one’s disorder — including its signs, symptoms and treatment — will help you handle the challenges of the condition. It’s much easier to provide support, encouragement and reassurance when you can separate the symptoms of the illness from the person you love.

Seek Counseling

If you are close to someone who’s mentally ill, it’s important to seek counseling for yourself and the other members of your family as well as the person with the disorder. Mental health professionals are a vital source of information about how to cope successfully with the symptoms of a psychological condition like bipolar disorder, major depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Counseling can help you deal with the frustrations and fears that can get in the way of your relationship with your loved one.

Counselors can also help you identify the early signs of a mental health crisis. If you’ve just begun to notice that someone you care about is behaving in a confused, irrational or unpredictable manner, a professional therapist can help you uncover the source of the problem. The advocacy group Mental Health America states that these behaviors may be red flags for a mental illness:

  • Sadness, hopelessness or tearfulness that lasts for two or more weeks
  • Persistent fears or anxieties
  • Changes in body weight or sleeping habits
  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • A sudden distrust of friends, family members or neighbors
  • Signs of delusional thinking or hallucinations
  • Withdrawing from social situations
  • Outbursts of angry or aggressive behavior
  • Abusing drugs or alcohol

To show your support, offer to attend counseling sessions or group therapy with the person in your life who’s mentally ill. Express an interest in the outcomes of her treatment, so that she knows you care about how her condition affects her life. Offer to provide transportation, childcare or other assistance if she needs these services in order to attend counseling sessions or meetings.

Set Boundaries

co-occuring disordersEstablishing personal boundaries is a necessity when you’re close to someone with a psychiatric disorder. Many mental disorders can cause problems with perceiving boundaries or respecting personal space. Your counselor can help you develop non-confrontational strategies for setting limits and boundaries, so that you don’t find yourself getting impatient or angry with the person you love.

Certain personality disorders are characterized by emotional manipulation or inappropriate behavior. If your friend or relative tries to influence your actions or thoughts by manipulating your emotions, you have the right to refuse to play along.

Violent or spiteful behavior should not be tolerated, even if it’s a symptom of mental illness. Keep in mind that the way you react to this behavior can make a big difference in your loved one’s future actions. Giving in to emotional manipulation or conceding to aggression will only perpetuate the problem. To be supportive, it may be necessary to refuse to accept behavior that hurts you or the rest of your family.

Build a Support System

Psychological disorders are complex and challenging, even for professionals with years of clinical experience. You can’t expect to support someone with a mental illness without a strong support network. Reach out to others in your community for information, assistance and advice in handling the realities of this condition. Friends, relatives, spiritual advisors and mental health experts can be there for you when you need their guidance or understanding.

If you’re the parent or caregiver for someone with a mental illness, caring for your own physical and emotional well-being will help you provide support to others. Drawing strength from friends, family and support groups will reinforce your own emotional stability, so that you can offer the best possible care to someone you love.

Reach for Help When Necessary

helpA mental illness can be just as dangerous as any other medical condition. Just as someone with chronic high blood pressure is at a higher risk of a heart attack or stroke, a person with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder may be at risk of a suicide attempt, an accidental injury, a self-inflicted wound or substance abuse. If your loved one reaches a crisis point, you shouldn’t try to handle the situation alone. Reach out to experienced professionals for help.

Residential facilities that specialize in treatment for mental health disorders can provide valuable resources during difficult times. For many with mental illness, intensive inpatient care may be the answer. Here at Axis, we offer treatment in a secure, comfortable, compassionate environment, where you and the people close to you can focus on building stronger, more stable lives. Call us for more information on our offerings.