When Someone You Love Faces the Challenge of Mental Illness
It is very rare to meet a family that has not been touched by mental illness or psychiatric diagnosis. It may be a history in the family; a story told about a great uncle who was said to be bi-polar (or manic depressive as they used to call it). Or it might be happening now; a teenager who is using cutting to manage his or her anxiety. Whatever it is, it can be scary, a little bit embarrassing, or overwhelming. There is a great deal of stigma around illness affecting the mind, the emotions and feelings.
Some of us are really struggling to make it through the day. We are sad and depressed, maybe having thoughts or feelings of suicide; we are very, very anxious, unable to concentrate and sure the beating heart we feel in our chest is a sign that we are dying; we use too many substances to soothe ourselves and develop an addiction or dependence; or we have diagnosed chronic illness which is affecting our lives and it just doesn’t seem worth it. We are stressed and distressed.
What can we do if this is happening to someone we love? How do we talk to them? How can we relate? What do we do.
- The feelings mentioned above are very real. There doesn’t have to be a reason for them. Please take your loved one seriously.
- It’s not your friend or family member’s fault. Did you know that mental illness can sometimes be caused by medical conditions? Even a simple urinary tract infection can sometimes cause confusion or other symptoms.
- Don’t lecture, but don’t minimize their experience. They probably feel bad enough already. It seems like it’s okay to talk about it if someone is diagnosed with cancer, but we don’t talk about it if someone is diagnosed with a mental illness. People feel stigmatized when they are given this kind of diagnoses, sometimes they even feel ashamed. You can help by being an advocate and providing support.
- Your family member or friend may need the help of a professional, just like a patient with pneumonia needs a medical professional. They don’t need advice from you, just as a person with pneumonia doesn’t need your advice. They have an illness, and may need professional help.
- You may feel like you have to “fix it.” You don’t! Listen and support instead. Please don’t tell the person to “get it together”, or to “get over it.” He or she needs support and compassion. Being there is the most important thing. Ask how you can help (though they may not be able to say), and ask how they are feeling.
- You may be afraid of what is happening. You may even be a little afraid of the person with the diagnosis. That is normal and makes sense. They are most likely scared too! They need your support. Mental and psychiatric illnesses are very common. If you want to understand more, read about their illness or ask questions to a reliable source like your doctor. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org) is an amazing resource with lots of information and resources.
- You are not alone! Psychiatric and mental illness is common. Support, listen, learn, and get help. (resource: www.nami.org)
- And lastly, don’t be afraid to Talk About It. That is where healing and help begins, both for the person suffering with mental illness and those who are most impacted by their illness: family, loved ones and friends.
Written By Elizabeth Bailey, RN
Marriage & Family Therapist Trainee at WVCC
West Valley Counseling Center is located at 19634 Ventura Blvd. Suite 212 Tarzana, CA 91356
For more information or to speak to one of our staff, please contact us at (818) 758-9450 or email us at email@example.com