-- Anonymous August 2014
It's almost a certainty that every person will find themselves asking this question as approximately 1 in 4 people will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. For a comparison, do you know anyone that is left handed? Approximately 10% of the population is a lefty. So you're 2.5 times more likely to know someone with a mental illness than a lefty.
Mental illness is a condition like no other. An individual's mental illness is unique. Universally effective interventions don't exist in the way that a medical doctor might treat a broken bone. Here are 10 tips for what to do if a family member has a mental illness:
Accept the Illness. Accept that the person has a mental illness. Understand that the symptoms you see are rooted in the mental illness, not the person.
Educate yourself. What's the first thing someone does when they are diagnosed with a medical condition? Immediate Google search. Do the same with depression, anxiety, or the diagnosed condition. Research not only the health condition but also ways to intervene in positive and healthy ways.
Attend health professional appointments with your family member. Ask questions at appointments about symptoms, warning signs, and coping strategies.
Combine your Google education with your family experience. I tell patients and families that they are the expert on themselves and their family. With your newly found education from researching the illness, see how that education fits with your family. Not all individuals have the same family dynamic and symptom presentation.
Respect. Treat each member of the family with respect. A mental illness does not make anyone less valuable or worthy. Although this previous post is about addiction, many of the tips can be generally applied in how to communicate in a respectful and empathic way.
Keep your family intact. Yes, a mental illness calls for an increase in attention, time, and energy for that individual, but don't lose focus on the other members of the family. Continue family activities to the extent that you can.
Be realistic. One of the first questions I hear is, "How long does this last and when is it cured?" There isn't an easy answer. Have a major goal in mind but break the big goal down into smaller goals. In developing these goals, include all appropriate members of the family, including the person with the mental illness.
Stay connected. It's not uncommon for families to experience shame, confusion, and embarrassment. Part of your education is accepting that one person isn't to blame, and it's vital to stay connected to others. Continue relationships with friends and other families. Reach out to support groups through organizations like NAMI.
Be a clear and consistent presence. It can be difficult but be a consistent and healthy support for your family member. Find that healthy balance and stay away from contributing to unhealthy behavior. Sometimes your love can enable unhealthy behaviors and decisions. When you find that line, have a discussion with your family member about how you see your role in their life and the possible limitations of your role.
Stay healthy. Make sure that you continue to make healthy decisions for yourself. Be aware that you aren't significantly sacrificing your mental health in trying to fix a loved one. You can only help when you are at your best, or at least in a mentally strong state. Whatever activities help you manage stress, continue them.
I often recommend family members to participate in their own therapy as it can be incredibly stressful when dealing with another family member's mental illness.
Remain hopeful, realistic, but hopeful. Hope doesn't fix a mental illness, but it provides an atmosphere to remain motivated to overcome a mental illness. Hope doesn't have to be the notion that this mental illness will be gone by the end of the week, it can be that we are going to have a good day.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!