Family and Friends Coping with Mental Illness

Given the high rates of emotional distress and mental illness, it is very likely that you will have a family member or friend who is dealing with a mental health issue. Mental illness does not just affect the individual but all of those who are around them. You may have a friend or family member who is dealing with depression, addiction, bipolar disorder, severe anxiety, or schizophrenia. If you are not careful, you can also become overwhelmed and develop intense distress as a result of the worry you feel for your loved one. Having a family member of friend with mental illness can cause you to feel sad, angry, frustrated, afraid, guilty, hopeless, ashamed, or confused. Here are a few important strategies:

1. Remember a relative or friend can not become the person’s therapist. It is important for you to be a supportive person but you cannot cure or fix the issue. You can help to ease their stress but do not try to be the person’s therapist. It is not possible and it is not healthy for either of you.
2. Encourage your friend or relative to get counseling and if needed to take their medication. Mental illness is a major issue that requires more than positive thinking or willpower. There are some skills that can be taught in counseling, some difficult past issues that can be processed, and some symptoms that can be reduced through medication and/or talk therapy. If you care about the person talk to them about the importance of getting help.
3. Tough love is not the answer for mental illness. Yelling, cursing, and giving ultimatums to someone with a mental disorder is not helpful. It increases stress, frustration, and anger. Usually the person will isolate and/or get worse. They may begin to say what you want to hear but the change will not be authentic or long-lasting when it is based on threats.
4. Knowledge is power. You can be a more effective support person by taking the time to learn more about your friend or family member’s specific mental illness. Talk to their doctor (if they consent) and/or read about the causes, effects, coping strategies, and resources. You are not alone. There are other family members and friends around the world who are in a similar situation of trying to support someone with mental health challenges. Talk with them on-line or in groups. Getting more information will empower you.
5. Enjoy the good moments. Instead of focusing solely on the symptoms, remember the good memories and be open enough to experience the good moments as they occur. Appreciate the good and recognize the strengths of the person in spite of the challenges they are facing. It doesn’t mean we ignore the problem but we know that there is more to the person that a diagnosis.
6. Self-care for the caretaker. You may spend a lot of time and energy trying to make your family member or friend happy. You have to be careful not to wear yourself down. You will end up drained and bitter if you don’t take time for self-care. Constantly putting off your needs will eventually catch up with you and result in emotional and sometimes even physical health challenges. Take time to rest, eat healthy meals, develop healthy relationships, and possibly speak with a counselor.