In this post I want to acknowledge the joys and challenges that exist in loving someone that has a mental illness. As well as how to support someone who is reaching out for help. Having a mental illness is challenging!! It is also challenging for loved ones trying to navigate how to best support someone with a mental illness. Before I go any farther, I will say, you know your situation best! It isn’t always possible to maintain a healthy relationship with someone who has a mental illness. Please seek help and guidance from a professional or from someone who cares about you if you are trying to figure out what to do about an unhealthy relationship.
Everyone in their journey of struggle with mental health goes through a time where they recognize something is wrong. They wrestle with what is wrong, and then how to tell others they are struggling. When this happens varies. Some people realize they are not okay in childhood/adolescence. For others it may take into adulthood before they discern what is happening. Some of this depends on when a person’s struggles begin. Other times people struggle for years without realizing there are options for help. Or that they don’t have to struggle so hard alone.
Although mental illness is better understood now than it was when I was a child, there are still many families who do not have the language of feelings, mental health, and wellness to teach their children. This is often because that language wasn’t taught to them growing up. People cannot teach what they do not know. And as much as I would love to say there is no stigma to mental illness any longer, we are not at the destination yet.
Stop. And Listen.
If someone you love comes to you because they are struggling, know that it isn’t your fault they feel this way. Oftentimes instead of listening to what another has to say, we immediately start thinking about our responsibility for what they are saying, or how we will respond once they stop talking. Worse yet, we think of all of the reasons why they really don’t feel the way they say they feel! So, if someone you love comes to you and says, “I’m struggling with my mental health.” Stop. And listen. It’s okay to ask questions like, “Tell me more about how you are feeling?” “How long have you been feeling this way?” “What can I do to help?”
Don’t say things like. “But you always seem so happy.” “Maybe you should just smile more or go for walks.” “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” It takes a great amount of courage to admit that you are struggling. People fear they won’t be believed or that no one will listen. You don’t have to fix the problems or have the answers. Just listen to what is said and assure that person they are no longer alone.
Relief and Finding Help
Sometimes telling another person you are struggling provides a temporary reprieve from the intensity of the symptoms. It’s a relief to know that someone else knows. This doesn’t mean that person is better, or they were faking their symptoms. But it can give relief while they seek out help. Know that if this happens it is normal, it doesn’t happen to everyone depending on the mental illness. Ask your loved one if they would like help finding a professional for diagnosis and support. Some people have a sense of how to access services and others do not. Some people will not have energy or motivation because of their mental illness to initiate the process of finding help. They may need help reaching out even if they know where to find services.
Once your loved one is receiving care from a team of professionals it can feel like such a relief for both you and them. Even so, it is still important to reach out frequently to check in. Some people resist asking the question, “How are you doing?” Because they feel like if their loved one is having a good day they don’t want to remind them of their problems. Trust me, your loved one never forgets even on the good days. It helps to know someone cares and asks the question “how are you doing” and means it even on the good days.
Not Everyone Welcomes Help
Sometimes a loved one is ill with a serious mental illness, addiction, or a personality disorder and resists seeing their own struggle or resists getting treatment. This is difficult for all involved. This is where support gets more complicated because a person will only seek help if they are inclined to. If interactions become toxic or abusive it may be necessary to temporarily or permanently limit contact. Abuse is not only physical and sexual. Abuse can be mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial.
It can be difficult to recognize when a relationship crosses the line into toxic or abusive. Especially when it is a relationship you are invested in with a parent, sibling, partner, child, or close friend. Oftentimes we will sacrifice ourselves for people we love because we feel like we should. Or because we don’t know how to set limits.
What are signs that a relationship is toxic or unhealthy?
- Frequent guilt trips
- Name calling
- Frequent criticism
- Controlling behaviors
- Threats including threats of suicide or violence if you leave them.
- Blaming you
- Humiliating or degrading you
- Withdraws affection/silent treatment
If you are noticing signs of an unhealthy relationship, please talk to someone you trust. Staying quiet protects the other person, not you. You don’t have to figure out what to do alone. It is helpful to find someone you trust that will help you explore all of your options without telling you what you “should” do. People change only if they want to and are willing to look at themselves honestly. You cannot change another person and you are not responsible for them or their choices. Sometimes love comes with limits.
Joy in the Struggle
Let’s finish with some of the positives or joys that can come from a struggle with mental illness. First people can develop really profound ways of understanding themselves and their experiences. This deeper self-understanding can translate into greater empathy for others. My hope is that with greater empathy and understanding the stigma surrounding mental illness will disappear. And as a result, people will be kinder to one another.
Greater understanding and mental health after mental illness can help people heal relationships with those they care about. Let’s face it, life will always have suffering, without which we couldn’t really experience the fullness of joy. That doesn’t mean we relish the challenging times. However when people learn healthier communication and better understanding for themselves, this can translate into healthier relationships with those they love.
Finally, good mental health after mental illness gives a different appreciation for contentment, peace, and joy. Many clients I work with have struggled for extended periods of time. Feeling good can feel distant, unfamiliar, and unattainable when your struggle has been long. Feeling the relief of less anxiety, decreased depression, reductions in PTSD symptoms, or more stable moods is a welcome gift. It allows a person to more fully engage in living instead of just surviving every day.
Please, if you are struggling, reach out. Suffering can end and life can improve. Reach out to someone you love. Reach out to a professional for help. If you reach out and run into someone who doesn’t respond as you need, reach out to someone else. I will hold on to hope for you until you are able to hold on to hope for yourself.