Coping With a Friend or Family Member Who Has a Mental Illness

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Having someone with a mental illness in your life can often be a delicate issue. It can be hard to know how to approach it, but there are ways to make it easier.

It is difficult to watch your friend or family member suffer from a mental illness. You may feel sorry for your loved one and want to help, and you probably also have times where you feel helpless, frustrated and even angry. Although these feelings are normal, they are often a source of guilt for people who care for someone with a mental illness. You are not alone in your struggle; mental illness affects the lives of many people. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 25 percent of people will experience a mental or behavioral problem sometime in their lives. Fortunately, you can learn ways to cope with your loved one's mental illness.

Coping Tips

To cope with your loved one's mental illness effectively, you have to bring some of your attention back to yourself. Though the focus naturally tends to be on the person who is ill, too often the friends and family members do not get the support they need to deal with their own emotions. You cannot truly help others if you do not keep yourself emotionally healthy. You must deal with your own emotions first, realizing that your loved one's mental illness is not your fault and that you cannot cure them. You can only offer your support - nothing more. In addition, you must acknowledge that it is not only acceptable, but perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed, frustrated and resentful at times. Confronting your feelings can be challenging. Some people find it helpful to join a support group or seek individual counseling. The act of talking to others who understand what you are going through can be a big help. Confronting your emotions is not easy, but once you do, you will feel as though a huge weight has been lifted off your chest.

Dealing with Problems

It is inevitable that you will have problems at times when dealing with your mentally ill loved one. The best way to handle these problems is to sit down and have a talk with your loved one when the problems are not occurring. This time should not be about blame, but rather should be viewed as a joint effort to handle issues. Point out some of your loved one's strengths and identify positive achievements, and establish rules and a plan on how the problems will be handled. For example, if your loved one has episodes of extreme anger or irrational behavior, you may decide that you will leave the room and refuse to have a discussion until they are calm. The issues may change over time, so you should set aside times for regular discussions to talk about what works and what new plans need to be made. Another issue that you may deal with is a negative response from others. There is a stigma attached to mental illness; however, public education on mental health is making this less and less true. Nevertheless, you still may run into issues. People often do not understand mental illness and may not be tolerant or understanding of your loved one's behavior. The best thing you can do is try to educate them on mental illness when possible. With understanding, they may become more accepting. However, some people may still may react negatively to your loved one. In this case, you will just have to accept that you cannot change everyone's thinking.

When to Seek Help

Mental illnesses can be complex and dealing with the symptoms often requires the help of a professional. If you see that your loved one is struggling to deal with their illness, suggest that they seek help from a mental healthcare professional. You may not be able to force your loved one to get help, but you can gently encourage it. Even if your friend or family member refuses help, you can get help yourself. A mental health professional can give you advice on how interact with your loved one and how to cope with your loved one's illness. Above all, share your love with your loved one and remember to love yourself. Some days will be more challenging than others, but you will get through them. Take one day at a time and do not be afraid to get help when you need it. If you need help finding a support group or mental health resource in your area, visit the National Illness on Mental Illness website here.   References - WHO: The World Health Report 2001 - NAMI: Coping Tips for Siblings and Adult Children of Persons with Mental Illness - NAMI Michigan: A Resource Guide for Families Dealing with Mental Illness


Rose K.

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