Coping with Friends and Loved Ones with Mental Illness
Mental illness runs in my family—I've been there, I've experienced it. Have you ever suffered from a type of mental illness, yourself? What about your family? Loved one(s)? If so, you're probably already familiar with the hard choices you have to make from time to time, and the painful process of rehabilitation, seeking treatment, etc.
However, if this is new to you, you're probably up to your knees in muck and aren't sure what to do. How do you go about it? Who do you talk to? It's frustrating—you just might want to tear your hair out.
I understand that feeling of hopelessness. Although I can't provide you with the magic bullet, and each case must be considered on a case-by-case basis, I can provide you with some basic essential tactics to confront the chaos. Mental illness is difficult to deal with, and it's almost just as difficult when you have someone close to you who suffers from it.
1. Understand: It isn't their fault.
Mental illness is, as the name implies, an illness. It is not something a person fakes or contracts intentionally. Someone can suffer from a mental illness all their life or one day develop it out of the blue. These sudden bursts of mental illness are the most startling, and thus the most difficult to deal with. Some have lived completely normal lifestyles for years, then one day developed full-blown schizophrenia. Although it is extremely unlikely, it is possible.
Remember, they don't want to be ill. A relative exception to this is hypochondria, which I will discuss in another blog/article.
2. Speak with others dealing with similar issues.
You aren't alone. There are thousands, if not millions of other people who have a friend or loved one struggling with mental illness. One of the most useful and constructive things you can do in this situation is find someone to talk to. It's even better if you form a long-term friendship with someone in a similar situation—you can share the ups and downs. Bottling it up will eventually make you explode, and that won't help your friend or loved one feel better.
But where can you meet people like this? There are group meetings for people in your position, clubs, etc. I will be posting some examples later on in this article. Again, you aren't alone.
3. Help them find help—Immediately.
One of the worst things you can do is wait. Like any other type of illness, mental illness can progress and worsen if left untreated. The worst cases to do this in are bipolar disorder (which I wrote about in a previous entry), schizophrena and eating disorders such as anorexia/bulimea. They will become harder and harder to stabilize, and eventually may require hospitalization to effectively treat.
One thing that prevents people who are mentally ill from getting help is the fear of social alienation. Will seeking professional help make them "weird"? Strange? A “freak”? The answer is no. Some people may be close-minded and make this assumption, but in today's society seeking emotional/mental help is slowly becoming more socially acceptable. People who are mentally ill may not have the courage to seek help. Many do not, and the results of doing so can be devastating.
4. Be there for them when they need you.
You are not alone, like I said before. However, they shouldn't be, either. High degrees of mental illness are often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, loneliness, feeling useless, etc. Thinking, "I'm alone, nobody wants to help me" leads to further depression, possibly developing other types of mental illness. Are you their lover? Parent? Friend? Be there with them as you normally would—no, more—and let them feel secure. People with mental illnesses are easier to treat when they are comfortable and relaxed, thus willing to get help.
5. Consider therapy, yourself.
People don't just get counseling and therapy when they suffer from schizophrena, biopolar disorder, and so on. Many also go to therapy when they suffer a loss in their family, when a loved one or friend is ill and the pressure is stressing them out, or when tragedy occurs in their home.
Mental illness is another something you have to cope with. When you have a friend or loved one with mental illness, this often puts you in league with the above situations. Don't think you don't need it—you probably do.
6. Educate yourself.
The more you know about something, the easier it is to overcome it. While many forms of mental illness are impossible for the patient to "overcome," the patient's loved ones are capable of overcoming the feeling of being overwhelmed. It IS possible to gain control of the situation.
There's a saying somewhere that (roughly) goes, "We fear nothing more than the unknown." There are few statements closer to the truth.
So if and when your friend/loved one's illness is diagnosed, educate yourself about it. Look at pamphlets, research on the internet, use Wikipedia, anything. Understand the disorder. You'll find yourself, many times, going, "Oh, so that's why they do this..."
Mental illness runs in my family. I, also, have a form of mental illness that I've struggled to cope with for years. As you can see, however, it's completely possible to function like every other person in society if you get proper help and assess the situation. It is possible to be there for your friends and loved ones who struggle to deal with their illness, although it is rarely easy. You already have the tools to do this in your hands. You just don't know it.
If you do nothing else, think of this—what if you were the one ill? What would YOU want?