Mental illness is slowly becoming a bigger part of the societal conversation. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), approximately 18.5% of all U.S. adults struggle with a mental illness. Chances are that you or someone that you know has been touched by mental illness—it’s not something to hide from any longer, but to discuss openly. Like any physical ailment, mental illness must be identified and treated. While you should also seek professional help, there are several things that you can do to properly care for someone with a mental illness.
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When someone you know and love has been diagnosed with a mental illness, the first step is to familiarize yourself with that illness. Get online or go to the library and learn as much as you can about what that person might be experiencing. Avoid rumors and myths and check out credible resources (NIMH is a great place to start) when you’re looking for information.
The person struggling with the disorder is most likely going through many phases (much like the stages of grief) from denial to acceptance. Research support groups, online and offline, where you can meet people who have gone through something similar; listen to their stories and get to know their journeys. The more informed you are, the better able you will be to support your loved one.
Open the Conversation
It’s not uncommon for people dealing with a mental illness to deny the existence of their disorder, particularly in the early stages. It’s human to think that you can deal with your feelings, your emotions. It’s human to look around and see everyone else conducting ‘normal’ lives and get frustrated with yourself because you aren’t able to.
If you suspect that your loved one is struggling with a mental illness, start a dialogue with them, but do so with care. Your loved one may not be ready to accept that they have a mental disorder; don’t accuse, but listen. Ask them to explain why they don’t agree that they’re struggling and accept what they’re saying—don’t try to change their mind. Instead, work on building trust and a supportive relationship.
Get Counselling Yourself
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Caring for a loved one with a mental illness can cause a huge amount of stress. It’s normal to be both concerned and frustrated, both worried and angry as the effects of mental illness often have a big ripple effect. It can be beneficial to talk to an objective third party, as your feelings will probably be conflicting. You may be angry with yourself for feeling angry at your loved one for their illness when you know that they aren’t, for instance.
Love, Accept and Have Patience
Your loved one needs to know that you do, in fact, love them. No matter what. Throughout each stage of dealing with their disease, reaffirm your love for that person. When they’re being difficult, when they’re in denial, when they’re frustrated and angry and irrational, show them love. Say the words. Support them, believe them, listen to them. Don’t try to push your own ideas and solutions on them. Acknowledge that recovery and stabilization are long processes and that they may not always be pretty. And love them, every step of the way.
Being able to express yourself in a completely judgement-free environment allows you to unload and acknowledge your own emotions. You’ll be better equipped to support your loved one if you, in turn, feel supported and mentally well. You’re not a superhero and you can’t fix your loved one; allow yourself to come to terms with these ideas and move forward, doing only what you can do.
*Note: If you believe that your loved one might be a danger to themselves, your best course of action is to get them to a hospital and ensure their physical safety.