By SHELLY COONROD
Living with a mental illness is incredibly difficult, but so is loving someone who does, whether it is a child, spouse, parent, sibling or friend.
There can be a lot of confusion when someone was once “fine” but is now acting differently. It’s hard to remember that loved one is still themself, just with some difficulties.
There can also be misplaced blame, such as wondering if your genes are “bad” or if you had somehow caused the problems. These are understandable concerns, but they are not necessarily true.
The National Alliance of Mental Health suggests the following in loving and approaching someone with a mental illness:
• Embrace empathy and validation. Empathy is understanding someone who is going through a difficult situation, even if you are not sure exactly how the person is feeling or have not been through something similar.
Empathy sounds more like, “I don’t know how to help you, and I’m sorry you’re hurting,” and less like, “I know you’re having a hard time but it could be worse, at least you have a roof over your head.”
• Resist the urge to say, “Try harder.” You probably wouldn’t tell someone who has asthma to try and breathe harder. When it comes to the brain, a similar statement is also unhelpful. Someone suffering with mental illness can no more “snap out of it” than someone can be cured of diabetes based on will.
• Learn the symptoms (and stop taking them personally). Not all mental illnesses are the same or have the same symptoms. It is important to know the symptoms your loved one is dealing with. For example, if someone you love has anxiety and needs to step away from a crowd, that is not bad behavior or a weakness of character. The more you know about their symptoms, the better equipped you are to understand their situation and help.
• Research treatment options. It is helpful to know what treatment is available for mental illness. These include medication, individual talk therapy, group therapy and therapies designed to build or rebuild skills that for whatever reason have been lost or were never given the opportunity to develop (such as emotion regulation and behavior intervention).
It should never be imposed as a form of punishment; however, a loving conversation on what is available can be helpful.
• Let go of your timetable. There is no magic time frame for wholeness, and certain mental illnesses ebb and flow for many years. Believing that your loved one should be better in a few weeks or months can set everyone, including yourself, up for hardship. Let go of idealized timetables and make a one-time decision that just as you would tell someone with cancer that you will remain by their side until they beat it, you are going to be there (even if it’s hard, even when it’s ugly, even if it takes a long time).
Along with diagnosing and treating mental illnesses, a good therapist can be professional support as you struggle with a loved one’s mental illness. Life is hard, and support is necessary whether you’re leaning on friends, loved ones or professional counselors. Please, if you need to, consider reaching out to a counselor and start your support.
Coonrod is a licensed professional counselor at New Transitions Counseling, Tiffin. If you have a mental health question, please send it to: Mental Health Moment, The Courier, P.O. Box 609, Findlay 45839.