15 Ways To Support a Loved One with Serious Mental Illness
Supporting a loved one with mental illness presents many challenges. But one of them isn’t blame. It’s important for families “to learn that they didn’t cause [their loved one’s disorder] and they can’t cure it,” according to Harriet Lefley, Ph.D, professor at the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine who’s worked with families for 25 years.
Still, how you treat your loved one has a big impact on their well-being. “But their behaviors can exacerbate the symptoms,” she said. In fact, Dr. Lefley cited a large amount of literature on expressed emotion that found that patients of families who expressed hostility and criticism toward their loved one (e.g., believing the patient was lazy) or were emotionally overinvolved (e.g., “I’d give my left arm if he’d get well”) were more likely to relapse.
Below, Lefley and Barry Jacobs, PsyD, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program, Springfield, PA and author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers, offer their tips for effective support.
1. Educate yourself about the illness.
Educating yourself about your loved one’s illness is really the foundation of support. Research also has shown that education works. According to Lefley, a huge body of evidence has shown that if you provide families with education and involve them in the treatment process, patients experience a reduction in symptoms, hospitalization days and relapse. Plus, the family environment is generally improved, she said.
Not knowing how the illness functions can create misconceptions and prevent families from giving their loved ones effective help. For instance, without education, it’s hard for people to grasp and appreciate the severity of the symptoms, such as the terrifying thoughts associated with schizophrenia or the suicidal ideation associated with a deep depression, Lefley said. It’s not uncommon for families to wonder why their loved ones just can’t snap out of it.
Families must “understand that the [individual’s] thoughts and actions are not under their control,” Dr. Jacobs said. Any antagonistic or bizarre behaviors are a manifestation of the illness, not willful, purposeful actions.
Similarly, in families, there is “a tendency to personalize a loved one’s symptoms and behaviors,” Jacobs said. However, these behaviors “are not meant to cause friction in the family,” Lefley said.