How to Understand and Navigate Your Loved One's Mental Illness
June 24, 2019
It can be extremely difficult and heartbreaking to watch a loved one suffer due to mental illness. This distress may be even greater if you feel as though you cannot wrap your head around what they are going through and why it is putting them through so much pain.
There still remains an onslaught of stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness, so it is normal to feel you are not equipped to best help your loved one in their struggle against mental illness. However, this stigma is precisely the reason why you must tread with much caution while navigating your loved one’s struggle, because it is very likely that they already harbor a deep shame about their mental illness. Not to mention, it is key that you do not inadvertently push them away, lose their trust, enable them, or validate potentially life-threatening thoughts.
In this guide, we will slowly walk you through what you need to know about mental illness, what you can do to help, and what other resources you can consult for more information on mental health.
Keep reading to find out:
- Understanding mental illness: the statistics, facts, and misunderstandings
- Taking action: how to navigate intervention; helpful vs. hurtful activity
- Further resources: readings and resources for further education
If you or a loved one is in imminent danger, please either call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, which is available 24 hours a day. You may also utilize the Lifeline Chat, an online service via the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which connects individuals to counselors for emotional support and direction to other services.
Understanding mental illness
Although, in the US, we are making amazing strides toward the elimination of the harmful stigmas and taboos that shrouds appropriate education on mental health from the public, we are still generally at a loss when it comes to confronting, or even simply talking about, mental health.
So, you are not alone if you feel confused or even angry because of your loved one’s mental illness. In this section, we will address statistics, symptoms, and misunderstandings for your education.
The Mental Health Crisis in America
Many psychologists, psychiatrists, and other healthcare professionals are in agreement that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis in the US.
A 2018 report by the CDC found that from 1999 to 2017, the suicide rate increased 33 percent, from 10.5 to 14.0 per every 100,000.
Moreover, approximately 1 in 5 adults suffers from any mental illness (AMI), which lasts for about a year, and 1 in 25 adults suffers from a serious mental illness (SMI), which is ongoing and persistent.
Signs of serious mental illness
Here is a list (via the American Psychological Association) of some of the symptoms of common mental disorders (CMDs, i.e. depressive, anxiety, and stress-related disorders) that you may notice in your loved one if they are suffering with mental illness. While this list is a good general baseline for reference, it is not-exhaustive and does not cover every specific manifestation of mental illness symptoms.
- Social withdrawal
- Difficulty functioning at school or work
- Problems with memory and thinking
- Feeling disconnected from reality
- Changes in sleeping, eating, and hygiene habits
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Extreme mood changes
- Thoughts of suicide
Evaluating common misunderstandings
The following are a list of four common misunderstandings about mental illness that we will debunk for you.
One: People with mental illness are violent or have a tendency to be violent or dangerous.
It is not the case that all people with mental illness are violent or have violent thoughts. With the tragic contemporary phenomenon of mass shootings, perpetrators’ actions are often attributed to “mental illness.” This assumption of mental illness in criminals or violent people stigmatizes the thousands of people who suffer from mental illnesses and do not commit crime. Violent cases which are sensationalized in the media or written off as a result of “mental illness” are the exception, not the rule. And it is quite controversial as to whether the individuals in these cases actually have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Two: Personality weaknesses are the cause of mental illness in my loved one, and I wish they would just toughen up a little and face their problems head-on.
Mental illness is never a fault in personality or a mere weakness of any suffering individual, and it is crucial that a mental illness is not treated as such.
Oftentimes, cases of mental illness are quite the opposite. Many suffering individuals exert so much time and energy—emotional or physical—with resolve to “will away” or “fight through” mental illness. Of course, this is far from effective, and it can be quite destructive to believe that you can simply grow a hard shell and mental illness will disappear.
Three: Men, children, the poor, the nonwhite, and others simply do not suffer from mental illness.
Gender: Men can suffer from mental illness as much as any other gender identity. However, a recognition of male mental illness is often thwarted by the disconcerting social pressures of masculinity in our culture today.
In the US, over 6 million men suffer from depression, 19.1 million from anxiety, 2.3 million from bipolar disorder, 3.5 million from psychosis and schizophrenia. It is also estimated that 10 percent of men account for anorexia or bulimia diagnoses and 35 percent of men account for binge-eating diagnoses.
Age: Children and adolescents, too, can suffer from mental illness as much as adults. NIMH estimates that 3.3 percent of children from ages 13 to 18 have had SMI.
Socioeconomic status or race: It is an unfortunate reality that many non-privileged groups do not have access to mental healthcare or cannot afford it, or that cultural factors (heritage, religion, etc.) create further stigma, which might lead individuals to believe that they simply are not the kind of person that suffers from mental illness or requires treatment. This leads to holding the misconception that mental illness is only a rich white women’s issue.
The bottom line of this myth is that anyone can suffer from mental illness, so this applies not only to gender and age but also class, race, or other factors.
Four: Ultimately, I won’t be able to do anything to help my loved one.
Taking on the responsibility of caring for a loved one who struggles with mental illness is not an easy endeavor. Oftentimes, it may feel deeply challenging since you do not think that your efforts are truly making a difference in your loved one’s life. You may never be thanked or shown appreciation for your efforts, especially if your loved one is in denial.
Despite these difficulties, remind yourself that showing empathy and compassion to your loved one is an important practice. Simply being an option for emotional support, if they utilize that or not, is extremely valuable and can go a long way in making sure your loved one knows they have a support system. Since individuals who struggle with mental illness already feel so much loneliness, especially if they feel as if they have to bear the burden of mental illness all on their own, it is crucial that you set aside any beliefs of quantifiable “progress” you are ushering into your loved one’s life.
Individuals who suffer with mental illness experience a wide variety of internalized shame, embarrassment, vulnerability, and denial, so they often do not seek help from others.
So, when you see your loved one struggling, it is crucial that you take the first step with them.
Taking initiative is not an easy task, by any means. There are a host of factors, such as the aforementioned shame and denial, and not every case is the same. Perhaps your loved one will be entirely open-minded and grateful, or they will be in complete denial and unable to recognize their problem at all.
But no matter what reaction you’re faced with, if you so choose, you have the responsibility of caring for your loved one. Following are a few tips on initiating action on behalf of your loved one.
Having a conversation
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention strongly recommends that you be blunt when you address suicide with your loved one. This may also apply to mental illness in general.
However, when you do initiate a conversation, it is essential that you do not make it a public forum. Bringing in a group of people to an extremely intimate and serious conversation may make your loved one feel as though they are on trial, even if your intention may be to surround your loved one with as many people who care about them as possible. A group intervention not only might make them feel uncomfortable or attacked but also could result in them averting or camouflaging the problem.
Instead, speak to them in private. Give them a safe space in which they may talk freely. Tell them that you care about them, and if you feel that you have the right moment to, encourage them to make an appointment with a mental health professional.
When having a conversation, it is important that you give your loved one an opportunity to speak on their own. Do not philosophize about the meaning of life or give them unsolicited advice that you believe may be in their best interest. These actions may make your loved one feel as though their suffering has been trivialized or invalidated, even if you want nothing more than to validate them.
Common treatment options for mental illness include medication and psychotherapy.
If your loved one consents to seeking medication, perhaps offer to go with them to the appointment, or offer a gentle reward like coffee or lunch afterward to decompress from the pressure. Going to see your doctor or psychiatrist about medication can oftentimes be scary, and having someone along for the ride is extremely helpful.
In terms of psychotherapy, being overtly present for your loved one may be difficult, since psychotherapy is practiced only between patient and therapist. However, for a preliminary appointment, it may be allowed for you to come along, if your loved one believes this is necessary.
Group therapy is also an option, and you would be allowed to come along with your loved one.
If your loved one refuses help, and you strongly believe that they are a danger to either themselves or others, the absolute last resort option would be to involuntarily commit them. This is an extremely serious decision that should only be utilized in the worst case scenario. While your loved one’s psychiatrist will ultimately be the one whose word counts to commit them, your input is also extremely valued as an insider, so please do not take this step lightly.
If you believe that your loved one will hurt themselves or others, please call 911.
You may also refer to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, whose number we will provide again: 1-800-273-8255.
When approaching mental illness, it is just as important to have an educated mind as it is an open heart. In your ongoing journey learning about your loved one’s mental illness, invest time to explore educational resources and materials.
Following is a list of educational materials for you to browse.
- “I Am Not Sick. I Don’t Need Help!” by Dr. Xavier Amador
- “The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers,” by Barry Jacobs
- The Trevor Project—suicide prevention nonprofit for the LGBT community
- Find support
- Living with a mental health condition
- Discussion groups—account creation and login required