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When A Loved One Is Mentally Ill: Support For Mental Illness

Updated on September 3, 2011

Someone I Love Is Mentally Ill ... What Can I Do?

A loved one has just disclosed a mental illness to you. Maybe it's depression; maybe it's bipolar disorder. You want to be supportive ... but how? What do you say to someone who's just told you they're mentally ill?

Disclosure of mental illness is not exactly something covered by Emily Post. There are still a lot of taboos surrounding the subject, and you may not even know what it means to be mentally ill, much less how to handle the situation when it arises in the life of a loved one.

As someone with a mental illness, I have first hand knowledge of what a mentally ill person needs, and does NOT need, to hear from her friends and family when she's going through a crisis. I also have many good friends who are mentally ill as well, and I've learned a great deal about how to support them -- while still taking care of myself.

Below is a list of "Do's" and "Don'ts" when someone you love is mentally ill. Reading it will enable you to be a better friend when they really need one.

When Someone You Love Is Mentally Ill - Learn as much as you can about their condition.

It's natural to feel nervous or uncomfortable if a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness. There is a lot of taboo and silence surrounding mental illness. It's not widely understood outside of medical circles, and you may be confused about what "mental illness" means.

For this reason, one of the best things you can do for your loved one is to educate yourself about mental illness. Not only will you understand what they're going through, but by learning about your loved one's condition, you will help to demystify it. Their mental illness will become much less scary the more you understand it. Better yet, you will be in a position to educate others as well.

At Wit's End: What You Need to Know When a Loved One Is Diagnosed with Addiction and Mental Illness
At Wit's End: What You Need to Know When a Loved One Is Diagnosed with Addiction and Mental Illness

A resource for families facing a member's coinciding addiction and mental illness. Discusses which illnesses mimic addictive disorders and how substance use can affect diagnosis.

 

In spite of my writing about mental illness, most people do not know that I have it. I write under an assumed name. I do not disclose it to coworkers or acquaintances.

However, all of my friends know about my mental illness, and it's a topic I feel comfortable discussing with any of them. Why?

Because I choose my friends very, very carefully. I pay attention to what people say and how they respond to what other people say. If I overhear someone in the break room at work complaining that "too many people are popping Prozac instead of dealing with their problems", that person will never be my friend. The person who agrees with that person will never be my friend. The person who says "Hey, that's an unfair statement" has earned my respect.

Just like a diabetic must take insulin to make up for a lack of it in her body, I need to take certain medications to make up for a lack of certain chemicals in my brain. You will make life easier on me, and on every other person suffering from mental illness, if you refrain from judging me for this.

Medicines for Mental Health: The Ultimate Guide to Psychiatric Medication
Medicines for Mental Health: The Ultimate Guide to Psychiatric Medication

A straightforward guide to mental disorders and the drugs that treat them ... A systematic yet approachable view of mental illness and the drugs used to treat it. -- Kirkus Discoveries

 

On the one hand, I love my medication. It enables me to function like an adult human being. Without it, I can't remember to start dinner or do laundry -- and even if I could I'd be too depressed to get out of bed. Literally.

On the other hand, I hate the fact that I have to take medication. Sometimes I internalize society's judgments, and I get down on myself for needing it. Other times I worry that, if medication can imbue me with this functionality, it can take it away again -- what if it stops working for some reason?

Be aware that your loved one may have a very complicated relationship with their meds. If you're willing to hold space for them to vent, you'll be providing them with invaluable support.

Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder
Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder

Editorial Review:

USA Weekend contributor and AD/HD researcher presents information on how to help and cope; chapters include "Psychological Denial," "Treatment Results that Last," and "Driving While Distracted," which includes Denise's story of when her husband slammed into a moose at fifty mph because he was "playing with the radio, fussing with the cell phone, adjusting the heat." --Alex Moore, Book Review Editor, Foreword Magazine, August 6, 2008

 

I live in San Francisco, and that means that every time I turn around someone is offering me a raw zucchini smoothie with extra spirulina so I can "cleanse" myself. Or something. People in NorCal have an annoying tendency to attribute everything to an unwholesome diet (like not eating enough soy) or reaction to "toxic" food (like soy).

Mental illness is a complicated issue. It arises from a variety of contributing genetic and environmental factors. It is NOT a "food allergy" and it will not be fixed by eliminating red meat, dairy, or wheat. I know this because I'm a gluten-free vegetarian who eats almost no refined sugar. Telling me that all my problems will go away if I just "fix my diet" minimizes my mental illness, and also ignores everything I already do to stay healthy. It's also rather rude and invasive.

Shadow Voices: Finding Hope in Mental Illness
Shadow Voices: Finding Hope in Mental Illness

Mental illness doesn't need to be "just" a food allergy in order to be manageable. There's always reason to hope.

 

While mental illness is not about what you eat, what you eat does matter.

It's been demonstrated that a healthy, balanced, whole foods diet along with 15 minutes of exercise a day can go a long way in improving someone's mood. For some people, this can even replace medication. For people like me, it just helps the meds work better.

If your loved one decides to augment their treatment by eliminating alcohol, don't ask them out for a beer. If they're trying to minimize their sugar intake, don't bring them cookies. Instead, ask them to go for a walk with you, or swim laps, or play tennis.

How to Use Herbs, Nutrients, and Yoga in Mental Health Care
How to Use Herbs, Nutrients, and Yoga in Mental Health Care

An integrative approach to mental health treatment, designed to appeal to patients, alternative and complimentary practitioners, and conventional physicians alike.

 

When someone discloses a mental illness, it's natural to be concerned for that person. You want the people you love to be healthy and happy. You may worry that your loved one is at risk of harming themselves. You may have tons of questions about medication, therapy, and what your friend is going through.

As hard as it may be, it's important to let your loved one set the pace for your conversations. They may want to talk about their illness, or they may not. They may want to talk about their therapy sessions, or they may not. When someone is mentally ill, it can be hard for them to build up a feeling of safety and security. Having someone probing their boundaries can be damaging -- at best, it will make them reluctant to confide in you.

I Have a Friend With Mental Illness (Basic Manuals for Friends of the Disabled)
I Have a Friend With Mental Illness (Basic Manuals for Friends of the Disabled)

Mental illness can be a terrifying, isolating experience. To make matters worse, mental illness can impede communication and relationship with others. This book will help you understand what your loved one is going through.

 

DO Make It Clear You're There To Listen - It's the single best thing you can do.

The single best thing you can do to support a loved one with mental illness is to tell them that you're there, willing to listen, if they want to talk about it.

Let's face it, mental illness is a heavy subject. A lot of people are afraid of it, and don't know how to discuss it with a loved one who may be suffering. It can bring up all sorts of issues, both in the sufferer and in the friend.

Personally, when I'm going through a crisis, I only talk to those friends who have explicitly said they're able to hold space for me. I don't want to cause suffering to my friends and family, so I don't want to lay anything too heavy on someone who lacks the capacity to handle it. Your loved one may feel the same way -- so if you want to be there for them, tell them so.

Helping Someone with Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers
Helping Someone with Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers

Amazon.com Reader Review:

The former First Lady's book is a very compassionate effort which can help a person who has to deal with mental illness for the first time no matter what the setting.

 

If you're supporting a friend through a mental illness, do not gossip about what they say to you regarding that illness. They may have had a hard enough time disclosing their illness to you; breaking their trust at this time could be incredibly damaging. Assume that confidentiality is required unless your loved one explicitly states otherwise.

The ONLY exception to this is if you yourself need support in coping with your friend's illness. Your loved one's ordeal is an ordeal for you as well, and you have an absolute right to get the support you need.

50 Signs of Mental Illness: A Guide to Understanding Mental Health (Yale University Press Health & Wellness)
50 Signs of Mental Illness: A Guide to Understanding Mental Health (Yale University Press Health & Wellness)

Anger, fatigue, obsessions, memory loss, sexual performance problems, suicidal thoughts. Are these signs of mental illness? How can you tell? Should you consult your physician? This reassuring book is for anyone seeking to understand their own symptoms or those of a loved one.

 

You may wish to discuss your loved one's mental illness with other family members or friends. Or you may need support yourself after being so supportive to your loved one.

In any case, it's good to be explicit about the confidentiality that your loved one requires. They may be OK with you discussing their issues with certain other people. They may not want you to use their name if you talk about their mental illness. Or they may not want you to discuss their situation at all.

If you need to talk about your loved one in order to get the support you need, use absolute discretion in doing so. Discuss the situation with your therapist, spouse, or someone you know will be understanding -- and who will keep your loved one's confidentiality, and yours.

DON'T Make Assumptions About What Your Friend Needs - It's just annoying.

I had a college friend who, whenever I would confide a problem to her, would respond by saying, "Well! Here's what you need to do ...".

Needless to say, I eventually learned not to confide in her.

I did not confide in my friend because I wanted or needed her to tell me what to do. In fact, I resented it like hell. I felt patronized and invisible. I felt like my friend thought of me as a hapless child who couldn't handle her own problems. The real reason I had confided in my friend was that I wanted her to listen -- pure and simple. That's it.

How to Help Your Loved One Overcome Depression: A Fast Simple System to Relieve Distress
How to Help Your Loved One Overcome Depression: A Fast Simple System to Relieve Distress

Depression effects not just the suffer, but their family and friends as well. This book gives care-givers much-needed advice and help for how to cope.

 

DO Ask Your Friend What They Need From You - Clear communication is always best.

Sometimes, it may not be clear what your loved one wants or needs. They may not know themselves whether they're asking for advice, your opinion, or just a sympathetic ear.

If you find yourself getting overwhelmed or confused about what your friend is asking from you in the way of support, it's OK to ask, "What do you need from me right now?". It will help you and your friend clarify what the conversation is about.

I find this is also a good tactic when the conversation is going to a bad place. For instance, I recently had a conversation where a friend expressed his disappointment with his life and his concerns for the future. I tried pointing out to him that he's handled his adversity really well -- in fact, he's started his own business that's growing every month -- and this, in the worst economy since the Great Depression.

But he had a negative answer for everything I tried to say to be supportive, and felt convinced that his life was going nowhere.

So I asked, "What do you need from me right now?". It caused him to stop and think, and he realized that he was stuck in a negative spiral that was doing him no favors.

When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness: A Handbook for Family, Friends, and Caregivers, Revised and Expanded
When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness: A Handbook for Family, Friends, and Caregivers, Revised and Expanded

Editorial Review:

An essential resource--featuring 50 proven Quick Reference guides--for the millions of parents, siblings, and friends of people with mental illness, as well as professionals in the field.

 

At times, you may find that you're not able to support your loved one in the ways that they want (or think they want). Support requires clear communication, and communication requires self-awareness -- if your loved one has just been diagnosed with their mental illness, or if their illness is exacerbated by other issues they haven't dealt with, your friend may not be able to tell you what they need.

I once tried to offer support to a friend who lacked self-awareness, and I wound up in over my head. She had recently developed a health problem that, while no means fatal, still required a serious lifestyle change. She was very anxious about it -- in fact, her anxiety made her health problem worse, and she knew it. She felt like she was incapable of changing her situation. Worse still, she felt like she "needed" her anxiety in order to function.

Every time I tried to point out that her condition was very manageable, she would come up with a reason why she couldn't manage it. I sppn began to feel stuck. My choices were to contradict her statements that she couldn't change her lifestyle, or to agree with her, even though I didn't think what she said was true. When I asked her what she needed from me, she claimed that all she wanted was for me to "listen".

After several phone conversations along these lines, I found my own anxiety getting worse and worse. I came to dread talking with my friend. Eventually I realized that she only thought she wanted me to listen -- but what she really wanted was for me to enable her belief that she couldn't take responsibility for her health. Whenever we talked, she put me in a conversational position where I had to agree with her, or, by disagreeing, enable her to come up with ever more elaborate reasons why she couldn't change.

I realized that I lacked the skills to support my friend. What she really needed was a therapist -- somebody with the training and ability to help her see the trap she had set for herself. I had to tell my friend that, for the sake of my own health, I was unable to support her in this situation.

The Nice Factor: The Art of Saying No
The Nice Factor: The Art of Saying No

Saying "no" is a skill worth learning.

 

DO Take Care Of Yourself - It's what's best for everyone.

If someone you love is mentally ill, it's important to remember that what they're going through affects you as well. It takes a lot of energy and resources to support someone who is suffering a mental illness. Even if all you're doing is listening, it takes a lot of energy that you will need to replenish.

You may also need to deal with feelings of worry or sadness about your loved one's condition. Don't be afraid to reach out for help yourself -- whether it's from a trained therapist, a spiritual advisor, or a trusted friend.

Finally, be sure to care for yourself as well as your loved one. Remember to take time for yourself, to do things you enjoy. You will be better able to support your loved one, and you will have a better life for yourself.

When Someone You Love is Depressed: How to Help Your Loved One Without Losing Yourself
When Someone You Love is Depressed: How to Help Your Loved One Without Losing Yourself

Booklist Review:

Those unfortunate souls who suffer from clinical depression experience extended periods of bleakness so intense it can render them unable to function. But other victims of this disease include the spouses, families, and friends of the depressed, and it is for them that psychologists Rosen and Amador have written this hopeful and empowering guide.

 

DO Educate Yourself About Mental Illness - I've said it before, but it bears repeating!

How much you want to educate yourself about mental illness depends on your relationship with your loved one. If a member of your community has disclosed their mental illness, you may be content to do cursory internet research. If the person with a mental illness is a close friend, partner, or child, you may want to read everything you can about their condition.

The important thing is that you understand that mental illness is not the fault of the person who's ill. It's not your fault either. It's not something anybody can really control, but it is something that can be treated and managed. There are people with a wide variety of mental illnesses, ranging from depression to bipolar disorder to schizophrenia, who live normal, productive lives -- and nobody even knows we're mentally ill, unless we tell them.

Understanding Mental Illness and Schizophrenia
Understanding Mental Illness and Schizophrenia

This DVD is part of the award-winning PBS series Healthy Body/Healthy Mind, an effort to improve awareness and reduce fear about mental illness -- fear which keeps millions of people from seeking the treatment they need.

 

The Three Keys To Supporting A Loved One With Mental Illness

If you're feeling overwhelmed by all this information, that's OK. There are only three things you really need to remember as you support your mentally ill loved one:

1. REFRAIN FROM JUDGMENT. Your loved needs to feel accepted and understood right now.

2. LISTEN. Your loved one needs to have space to talk about their illness.

3. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST. Take a step back and do something for yourself from time to time. It will be better for you AND your loved one.

Best of luck!

Does Someone You Love Suffer From Mental Illness? - Or do you just want to learn?

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    • merfzel profile image

      merfzel 4 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Thanks for this lens... I am always appreciative of people who take the time to help educate people about mental illness in order to defeat the stigma associated with it. I have bipolar disorder and may recommend this page to my husband... thanks again... great lens!

    • SusanRDavis profile image

      Susan R. Davis 5 years ago from Vancouver

      Whether it's mental illness or any other serious problem, what you've shared here can be incredibly helpful. Both to the ill person and the supporting person. No matter what words are used, people reaching out to you for help do not always need or want solutions, even if that's what it sounds like they are asking for. But you are not a mind reader. Ask them what kind of help they want. You might be surprised by the answer. Never assume. My best friend puts it really well. She says no matter what else, she is always here to listen so tell her what I need.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I have a family member with a mental illness and I've learned as much as I can about it, but having someone with a mental illness explain how I can best support them is so helpful. Thanks for the helpful advice.

    • seashell2 profile image

      seashell2 5 years ago

      Thank you for sharing your journey, I just recently learned a family member has a mental illness and the words you have shared have given me some good insight.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I have a close friend who I seriously believe may be bipolar, but is resistant to the idea that anything might be "wrong with them".

      My friend usually believes that there is nothing wrong with them, that it's the actions and attitudes of others that cause their feelings of fear, anger, and depression (including suicidal feelings). Occasionally, they say that maybe they do have a mental issue, but they're going to work it out themselves and figure out how to get back to normal, rather than "going to some quack doctor and getting pumped full of drugs."

      I really understand the thing you said about listening vs. agreeing. If I'm asked for my opinion about something, I'll offer it, but I like it much better when I can just listen without being asked, because if I disagree it will turn into that long-winded explanation of why the way I see it isn't right.

      The friendship isn't always stressful, sometimes they're a lot of fun to be with, and they definitely find MY friendship beneficial, so I just try to maintain my perspective and my sense of self during the weird times.

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 6 years ago from UK

      I'm glad that someone as articulate as you is also willing to share her personal insights. Each one of your pages on mental illness and on learning disabilities adds to a valuable resource that ordinary people can access and relate to. Angel blessed.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      I have bipolar disorder and PTSD and I know it's really hard from my loved ones to understand what I'm going through. The best thing I would say is to educate yourself and be supportive. That's all I would ask for. Hope your loved one finds peace.

    • profile image

      Echo Phoenix 6 years ago

      mental illness does seem to run in our gene pool as my family has been plagued by it... and I have been over the deep end myself yet I know about the otherside of mental illness, when you breakthrough finally and can sigh a breath of relief. "it don't come easy" but it is within reach so my best advice is to never quit reaching. You create brilliant lenses on the topic and your courage is admired greatly;)

    • David Dove profile image

      David Dove 6 years ago

      Have begun referring people to your lenses, can't beat personal experience no matter how unwelcome it may be, the honesty of experience shines through, again my thanks for your lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      You've put together a nice and informative lens here, I appreciate the flow and resources offered. Great to meet you, (Bipolar-help)

    • luvmyludwig lm profile image

      luvmyludwig lm 6 years ago

      yes. you've done a great job presenting information for people who know someone with a mental illness.

    • nestboxes profile image

      nestboxes 6 years ago

      No, but my partner works and has clinical experience in the field and with such a stigma surrounding the subject this is refreshing advice.

    • nestboxes profile image

      nestboxes 6 years ago

      No, but my partner works and has clinical experience in the field and with such a stigma surrounding the subject this is refreshing advice.

    • Richard-H profile image

      Richard 6 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      No, but your heartfelt message will surely help others.

    • Richard-H profile image

      Richard 6 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

      No, but your heartfelt message will surely help others.

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image

      Wednesday-Elf 6 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      Very excellent advice from someone who 'knows whereas she speaks'! Thanks so much for sharing 'from the heart' words that anyone suffering from or dealing with mental illness would find very helpful.