Mental illness is a chronic illness with life changing impact. Even when a person is properly medicated, in treatment and in remission, mental illness puts its sufferers in a devastating limbo. Let’s consider what it could be like:
- Have you ever gone without sleep for one night? 48 hours? Longer?
- Have you ever woken up, startled and not sure where you were?
- Have you lost your keys or your glasses and couldn’t find them?
- Has a song been running through your head for a couple of hours? A day? A week?
Remember how you felt in these circumstances. Irritable, frantic or close to screaming? What if it all happened at once?
Thinking about this can give us some empathy for people with mental illness. Furthermore, many people who have brain-based mental illness are effectively cut off from predictable and rewarding life experiences. They suffer from their inability to competently do things that they could do before.
This life-constriction threatens our loved ones’ psychological integrity. This sets up a process where people with mental illnesses feel they must protect themselves at all costs. They struggle to maintain some dignity and self-respect in the face of stigma, failure and shame. Still, the behaviors that result — refusing medication, rejecting family and community support, and disrupting family life — do not make sense to us.
Whenever a person has a serious chronic illness, such as COPD, emphysema, chronic heart disease or mental illness, two things happen to their sense of self:
- They lose their protective belief that they are exempt from harm. Much of our sense of safety and our willingness to take risks rests on this belief, especially among younger people.
- They lose their sense of a predictable, dependable future. This results in the use of defensive coping strategies. These self-management techniques are basically maladaptive. They don’t help people get what they really want, but they do provide temporary psychological refuge when confidence and self-image take a nose-dive.
In the next post, we will look at typical defensive coping strategies and the empathetic guidelines to help families deal with loved ones who exhibit them.