Mental Health Awareness Month: An important resource for supporting your loved ones

Mental illness has a devastating effect on the whole family and as May was Mental Health Awareness Month, we have sourced some helpful tips to support a loved one with serious mental illness.

Supporting a loved one with mental illness presents many challenges. But blame shouldn’t be one of them. It’s important for families to learn that they didn’t cause their loved one’s disorder and they can’t cure it. Still, how you treat your loved one has a big impact on their well-being. Behaviour can exacerbate symptoms and patients of families who express hostility and criticism toward their loved one — for example, believing the patient is lazy or emotionally over-involved — are more likely to relapse.
Educate yourself about the illness

Educating yourself about your loved one’s illness is really the foundation of support.

Evidence has shown that if you provide families with training and involve them in the treatment process, patients experience a reduction in symptoms, hospitalisation days and relapse. The family environment is also generally improved.Without education, it’s hard for people to grasp and appreciate the severity of the symptoms, such as the terrifying thoughts associated with schizophrenia or the suicidal ideation associated with a deep depression. It’s not uncommon for families to wonder why their loved ones just can’t snap out of it. Any antagonistic or bizarre behaviours are a manifestation of the illness, not wilful, purposeful actions.

Seek out resources
One helpful way to educate yourself about a loved one’s illness and how you can help is by turning to reputable publications.

Have realistic expectations
Your expectations can impact your loved one’s recovery too. After spending time in hospital, the family assumes that the hospital stay has cured them. Wanting to make up for lost time, the individual ramps up their schedule and by doing so, their stress level escalates and they end up having a relapse. The best option is to have lower expectations and encourage a loved one to set a slower pace since added stressors can exacerbate symptoms. Setting reasonable expectations can be tricky, so the challenge is to fine-tune those expectations all the time.

Sometimes, you may be using pure trial and error, but using your own experience can be helpful. It’s important to have realistic expectations and to encourage your loved one to have them too.

Reach out for support
Stigma can prevent families from seeking support. But it’s through support that you gain more strength and valuable knowledge. Support groups also help to normalise a family’s experiences and better enable them to swap ideas about managing a loved one with mental illness.

Work closely with your loved one’s treatment team
While it depends on the specific system, confidentiality barriers can complicate working with your loved one’s treatment team. First ask to speak to your loved one’s social worker and the psychiatrist, if possible. Let them know that you’d like to be part of the treatment team. Many facilities will allow families into the meetings and case conferences. But ultimately, families should ask to be included and expect it. Ask how you can help your loved one, and find out what’s a reasonable expectation for recovery and how functional the patient will be.

Let your loved one have control
People with mental illness feel they’ve lost control of their lives, they feel stigmatised and they suffer the most with self-esteem. It is important to treat them with respect no matter how symptomatic they are. Even seemingly bigger decisions, such as schedules for taking medication, may be better left to the patient. set up a system with your loved one, which is easier to do after they returned from the hospital.

Encourage them to talk to their mental health professional
Encourage your loved one to discuss adverse side effects from a medication, and what bothers them and talk to their doctor, Remind your loved one that they’re in control of their bodies and are active participants in their treatment.

Set appropriate limits
While it’s important to treat your loved one with respect and allow them to exercise control, it’s just as necessary to set limits for the sake of everyone’s well-being.
Families don’t want to step in too much and give mandatory conditions but at the same time, there are family members who basically say ‘you’ll do it my way or the highway,’ in a very punitive and harsh way. This approach doesn’t give the individual any option to live their life.

Establish equality
When setting limits and supporting your loved one, don’t single them out as the sick one. Instead, establish some kind of equality of what is expected of everyone in the household.

Families, the patient included, can voice their concerns and contribute to creating problem-solving strategies and solutions for everyone.

Realize that feelings of shame and guilt are normal
Know that guilt and shame are typical reactions for families, Some families may worry that they didn’t get their loved one into treatment sooner; others may think they caused the disorder. Remember, families don’t cause mental disorders like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — they’re caused by a variety of complex factors, including genetics and biology.

Recognize your loved one’s courage
In our society, we view people with a physical illness, such as cancer or diabetes, as courageous, but we don’t extend the same perspective to people with mental illness. But it takes enormous courage to return to normal life after being hospitalised. It takes courage to battle the debilitating symptoms every day and to seek and stay in recovery.

Help yourself
One of the biggest issues with caregivers refusal to accept help. Caregivers need to know that they’re in a much better position to help out and give again if you help yourself. It’s also unhelpful to concentrate all your efforts on an individual with the disorder as this can alienate siblings and other family members as well.

Be calm
Your actions can influence your loved one and impact their symptoms, so instead of responding angrily, try to respond with patience and understanding.
Convey hope

Inform your loved one that with continued treatment, recovery — or at least leading a satisfactory life in the community despite the illness — is possible.

Get political
Families are encouraged to get involved in the political process of improving the mental health system since this affects families and their loved ones. By reading extensively from reputable sources, one can lobby for effective change to enhance the quality of life for the person with mental illness.

Diana Sochen
Executive Director

Acknowledgement: Lefley Jacobs; PsyD, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program, Springfield, PA and Barry Jacobs; author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers.


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