Help! Someone I Love has a Mental Illness

Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, OCD, ADHD and so on. These words strike fear into the hearts of mothers, fathers and partners. When you first suspect that your loved one is sick, it can be confusing and frightening, for them and also for you. You question yourself and them - is it real, how do I help, what does this mean, can't you get over it, did I do something wrong?  There's a cycle of grief that's well known, and learning that a loved one is sick can take you through that same cycle: shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and sadness, and acceptance and hope. In addition to the well researched stages of grief I just mentioned, caregivers frequently experience a period of burnout, as well as a period of fear and confusion.

Mental health professionals are often so focused on helping the person with the mental health diagnosis that they overlook the needs of the caregivers. Sadly, there aren't enough resources.

family member has mental illness, when a family member is sick, support for family

As you go through the stages following a loved one receiving a diagnosis you may need a little help. Sometimes you can get help from friends, but sometimes you need a little more. That's when you might need to reach out for professional help. 

Do you have a loved one that has been diagnosed with a mental illness? Can you relate to any of the stages below?

Shock and Denial - When you first hear that someone you care about has a mental health diagnosis, you might say to yourself, "this isn't real, it's just a phase, he/she will get over it". Then when it doesn't go away you have to stop and reevaluate. Realize that the person who is suffering needs your love and support now more than ever. If you are shocked by them having a diagnosis, imagine how they feel.

Pain and Guilt - You might worry that something you did or didn't do caused your child or partner to suffer from a mental disorder. No one is perfect, but that doesn't mean that you caused the problem. There are a lot of things that can factor into mental illness, including family history, biological vulnerability, substance use, and life experience.

Fear and confusion - "If my child/spouse/girlfriend has a diagnosis, does that mean I'm crazy too? Will I have to lock them up? What do I do to help? Can I help at all? Will people look at me differently if they know?" These are all common questions that might run through your mind. It's ok. It's normal to go through uncertainty. Getting a diagnosis can be scary. It's time to educate yourself about the problem and about what resources are available to you and to your loved one.

Anger and Bargaining - You might ask yourself "why did this happen to me/them?" or say "it's unfair".  You're right, it is unfair. But that doesn't mean that you get to ignore it. It's better to acknowledge the problem than to try to sweep it under the rug. It won't go away on it's own.

Depression and Sadness - This isn't depression in the clinical sense. Rather, it is the sadness of realizing that someone you love is in pain and that you can't fix it.  

Burnout - After caring for someone who is in pain and has a lot of needs, your resiliency takes a hit and you get exhausted. It might feel like it's all just too much and that person who you love is sucking you dry. This is a signal that you need to learn some skills to take care of yourself. If you can't take care of yourself, you can't help them.

Acceptance and Hope - Once you have accepted that the problem exists, problem solving can start in earnest. You have educated yourself about the illness, how to care for the person with the diagnosis and how to take care of yourself at the same time. There is hope. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't do the work that I do.

These stages don't necessarily go in order. You might start with Shock and then Fear, then move to Anger, then Acceptance, then back to Anger and so on. You need to allow each stage to happen. Each time you get to the acceptance stage, you will be able to stay there longer and longer. Healing happens for the caregiver as well as the person with the diagnosis.

Build a support system - this isn't a time to white-knuckle your way through. You might have a few friends or family members that you can really trust, you might have a priest or a pasteur you can talk to. I highly recommend seeking out a support group in your area if you can. 

Please feel free to contact me with questions or comments. 

Resources:

NAMI Family to Family program

Bay Area Mental Health Family Support Group

Article: 15 Ways to Support a Loved One with a Serious Mental Illness

 

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