Note: This post is adapted from information I learned in the NAMI Family-to-Family program. We highly recommend attending this program to learn more about mental illness.
Having a mental illness and dealing with the world takes enormous courage and determination. As we have previously written, many people develop defensive coping strategies.
These negative behaviors are actually typical for any person with a life-changing or life-threatening illness. (They include irritability, denial, abusive language and resistance to treatment.) For people with mental illnesses, the behaviors are even more counter-productive. This can be very upsetting to you.
So what’s the best way to react? Here are some suggestions from NAMI:
- Respect and protect your loved one’s devastated self-esteem. Don’t criticize them. Keep nagging and negative remarks to a minimum.
- Punishment, argument and pressure make things worse.
- Ignore as much negative behavior as you can. Praise positive behavior as much as you can. People with mental illness are more likely to improve when they can see behaviors earn them approval and recognition.
- Accept the symptoms of the illness. You don’t punish a child with a stomach virus for vomiting. Know what the symptoms of the illness are, and try to separate that from the person’s behavior. You cannot argue someone out of a depression or delusions.
- Accept that your loved one may not be able to fulfill a normal role in the family. Reduce your demand for emotional support and “carrying your weight.”
- Make these allowances, yet treat the person as a regular member of the family.
- Encourage independent behavior. Allow them to do what they can, which can vary from time to time. But, again, don’t push.
- Live in the present. You have a right to grieve, and you may need professional help to do so. But don’t live in the past or focus on “what could have been.” One of the best things you can do for your loved one is to accept that they have an illness that makes life harder, but not impossible. This is how it is.
- Be patient. When our loved ones take steps toward more independence, it’s very scary for them.
- Be kind to yourself and the rest of the family. This is hard. Don’t criticize yourself or others when you make a mistake. Give everyone in the family some grace.