It takes enormous courage and determination to live positively with a serious mental illness. But it can happen. And we can help. We can respect and protect our loved one’s deep vulnerability.
Here are a dozen ways to offer that support, based on material from NAMI’s Family-to-Family program.
- Don’t nag or criticize. People who have a mental illness are unable to defend themselves against a direct personal attack. Despite irritation, try to be supportive. Keep negative and nagging remarks to a minimum.
- Don’t push or punish. It doesn’t work. It will be hard on both of you. And it is highly correlated to decompensation and relapse.
- Praise positive behavior and ignore negative behavior. This is the best way to influence your loved one’s behavior is to praise the positive. Studies show your loved one will want to perform the behaviors that earn them recognition and approval.
- Learn to recognize and accept symptoms. We wouldn’t get furious if a person with epilepsy had a seizure. So we need to accept that some behaviors are the direct result of the illness. Don’t argue with delusions. Don’t try to talk someone out of a clinic depression. Also, help your loved one understand that symptoms are not their fault, but part of the illness. Some symptoms can be controlled with treatment, including medications.
- Stand up to the stigma. People with mental illness are not bad people. They are people with a bad disease. They are not trying to embarrass or anger us.
- Lower your expectations for your relationship. Then lower them again. People with mental illness do not have the capacity to provide emotional support to us. Get help from other places.
- Treat them like other people. At the same time, set basic rules and limits for the whole family. Structure is almost always helpful.
- Encourage steps toward independence. When your loved one is ready, encourage them to take small steps toward being more independent. But keep your expectations reasonable.
- Don’t dwell on “what might have been.” Accept the illness. Still, don’t give up hope. We need to tell our loved ones that the illness can make things difficult. But a happy life is still possible. People do adapt. Some people actually get much better.
- Be patient in health, as well as in sickness. When our loved ones improve, stay patient and loving. It takes time to develop a lifestyle that protects them from becoming ill again.
- Be gentle with yourself and others in the family. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Mental illness is often cyclical, so things will get better, then worse and then better again.
- Pray for grace. Ask for tolerance, compassion, endurance and self-control. Sometimes only God can give you the attitude you need.