How Do You Live With a Loved One with Mental Illness?

Mental illness is getting a lot more media coverage as of late. A quick online search brings up stories about a Colorado representative fighting against the stigma of mental illness, a New Jersey school providing more mental health therapy resources for its students, and the latest Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report on the state of teenagers’ mental health in the US.

It’s encouraging that there’s now more awareness of mental health issues. For those living with those issues, life can be hard. What can you do if your loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness?

What Is Mental Illness?

First, it’s important to note that not all mental health concerns are mental illnesses. The Mayo Clinic explains the difference: “Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function.”

Experts broadly use the designations Any Mental Illness (AMI) and Serious Mental Illness (SMI) to describe the range of illnesses. And the National Institute of Mental Health defines both

Any Mental Illness (AMI): “A mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. AMI can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment (e.g., individuals with serious mental illness as defined below).”

Serious Mental Illness (SMI): “A mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. The burden of mental illnesses is particularly concentrated among those who experience disability due to SMI.”

Examples of AMI include everything from anxiety to eating disorders, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders, and more severe mental illnesses. SMIs fall under the umbrella of AMI, so schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder — three very serious mental illnesses — can be classified as both AMI and SMI. 

Although any diagnosis of mental illness, whether mild or severe, can feel scary to the person who’s received it and to their loved ones, the American Psychological Association consistently reminds us that mental health help is available and mental illnesses are treatable. 

Signs That a Loved One May Need Mental Health Help

What behaviors can you expect from a loved one who’s struggling with mental illness? The American Psychological Association lists some common symptoms to look for:

  • Withdrawing socially
  • Not thinking clearly or having trouble with memory
  • Struggling to function normally at work or at school 
  • Experiencing extreme changes in mood
  • Feeling disconnected from reality
  • Changing sleep, eating, or hygiene routines
  • Drinking or using drugs excessively 
  • Thinking about suicide

Everyone who’s diagnosed with a mental illness won’t experience all of these symptoms, of course. And everyone who’s experiencing some of these isn’t necessarily diagnosed with mental illness. 

What’s important is recognizing when someone you love is showing signs of difficulty — feeling disconnected, struggling to function, or withdrawing from normal activities. Be sure to encourage them to seek mental health help from a professional who can determine if they’ve just hit a bump on the road of life or if they may be dealing with a more serious mental problem.

What To Do If a Loved One Is Experiencing Mental Illness

When a mental illness diagnosis is given, you may feel a wide variety of emotions…shock, anger, frustration, grief. These are normal reactions to what can feel like a devastating diagnosis.

In spite of the roller coaster of emotions, it’s important to remember that mental illness is treatable, and when your loved ones get started with the right treatments for mental illness, it’s possible for them to live well and lead productive lives.

And your care and support along the journey will help them do that. The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF) gives five tips for loved ones of those with mental illness.

  1. Educate yourself about the specific condition your loved one has. The more you know about the specifics of your loved one’s illness, the more supportive you can be. So, learn all you can about living with mental illness, and specifically, with the mental illness your loved one has been diagnosed with, the treatments for that particular mental illness, and the results you can expect with the treatment. 
  2. Encourage your relative to get the best treatments for mental illness. Sticking with the treatment plan is so important for anyone with mental illness to live productively. Your encouragement about counseling for mental health and other treatments for mental illness can make all the difference in your loved one’s success. BBRF encourages you to go to the first appointments at the mental health treatment center with your family member, if at all possible, because those can be some of the hardest appointments.
  3. Set realistic goals. Learn what improvement you can expect to see when the mental health help plan is in place and set goals that can easily be broken down into steps. Celebrate when each step is taken.
  4. Be supportive. Let your loved one know you’re there for them. Be empathetic. Listen well, and show that you care.
  5. Be careful about assuming you know what your family member needs. You’ll be learning a lot about your relative’s specific condition by journeying along with them. But be careful not to assume you know so much that you know exactly what they need every moment. Instead, give your loved one the assurance that they can share what they need because you’re interested in hearing it. Then follow up by listening well. 

Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Relationship with a Mentally Ill Loved One

Communicating with your mentally ill family member will at times feel challenging. Remember that there are things you can do to communicate better and maintain the relationship well.

  • Communicate using “I” statements. Remember to talk about any issues through the lens of how it impacts you rather than saying to your loved one, “You always do this or that…” Instead, say, “When this happens, I notice…”
  • Stick to the facts. Try to stay away from offering your opinion and simply restate what happened factually. 
  • Be a good listener. Listening well is one of the main keys to good communication, so practice listening well.
  • Stay calm. It may be easy to feel frustrated or lose control, but do your best to remain calm as you talk.

You and your loved ones don’t have to travel the road of mental illness alone. The professional counselors at Best Day are trained in counseling for mental health. Give us a call today!