Millions of Americans suffer from a variety of mental illnesses. Not only is a mental illness diagnosis difficult for the patient, it’s also emotional and challenging for family members. Many people are unsure how best to support their loved ones suffering from mental illness while also struggling to cope with the diagnosis themselves. If you have a family member who’s been diagnosed with a mental illness, consider the following tips:
Do your homework. First thing’s first: educating yourself about your loved one’s mental illness is crucial. In fact, research shows that patients whose families are educated about their illness actually have fewer symptoms and hospitalizations. Not surprisingly, the home environments of families who make the effort to educate themselves about mental illness are generally more supportive than those who are unfamiliar with mental illness. When family members don’t make the effort to understand their loved one’s illness, they often attribute symptoms to other causes and wonder why their loved one can’t just “get over it” or “snap out of it”. Through appropriate research, family members learn that loved ones’ symptoms and actions are not under their control; rather, they’re a by-product of mental illness.
Avoid unrealistic expectations. Many family members mistakenly assume that their loved ones are cured of mental illness following a hospitalization or therapy. Often, they expect them to jump back into their old lives without missing a beat. Holding your loved one suffering from mental illness to unrealistically high expectations often backfires; the stress can result in a relapse and another hospitalization. It’s important to remember that living with mental illness is a marathon, not a sprint and your expectations play a role in your loved one’s recovery.
Do not criticize. Rather than criticizing your loved one about behaviors you don’t understand, try to use positive reinforcements instead. Avoid arguing with him about whether or not his thoughts and fears are realistic. Instead, listen to his concerns and let him know you understand how he is feeling. While it’s good to empathize with mentally ill family members, it’s also helpful to encourage independent behaviors– within reason. Mentally ill individuals do better in a stable environment with structure and routine.
Get support for you. Despite widespread efforts to educate society about mental illnesses, there is still a stigma attached to it that often makes people reluctant to seek help. But both individual and family counseling services are invaluable resources for family members who are struggling to cope with their loved one’s diagnosis.
Be a part of your loved one’s treatment team. If possible, be an active part of your loved one’s treatment team. Of course, HIPAA laws can sometimes be a barrier, but it’s worth it to reach out to your loved one’s treatment team to ask how you can be involved. Doing so will help you to better understand how you can help your loved one and what you can expect in terms of functionality and recovery.
Coping with a loved one’s mental illness is often tremendously stressful for family members. In addition to using the above coping tips, it’s important for family members to know when to ask for help. To learn more, contact us today.