Guide to Caring for a Loved One with a Mental Illness

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According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), millions of people in the United States will find themselves affected by a mental illness in any given year. Mental illnesses and mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and the like are so common, and we need to accept that we would have to help someone we love who’s suffering through something similar—if we don’t go through these disorders ourselves.

Caring for a family member or loved one with a mental illness can be stressful and challenging, but with enough preparations and presence of mind, we can do it effectively without sacrificing our own well-being. Here are some essential tips on caring for someone we love who’s suffering from a mental illness:

Have the right attitude and countenance

When we come from a place of judgment, we make things harder for the person who has been diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder. They already have so much going on inside their heads and their hearts, and the last thing they need is to hear disparaging words or have people walk on eggshells around them. Here are some practical tips on communicating with your loved one:

  • Express concern and listen well when they do decide to speak. Ask questions, but don’t be overbearing about it.
  • After they’ve shared what’s been bothering them, do not invalidate their feelings and thoughts, and don’t default to toxic positivity.

Establish an emergency plan

If you are living with someone who battles suicidal thoughts and ideation, partner with them and their therapist in coming up with a safety or emergency plan. This can include the following:

  • Giving them a list of contacts of people they trust and love, and who they know can pick up the phone or get in a car and go to them immediately.
  • Teach them how to use a pain scale. It’s a method that’s usually used by doctors to measure patients’ physical or physiological pain, but you can also use it to help your loved one provide a gauge for how their mental health is doing at any given hour or day. If you use the scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the worst kind of emotional pain and mental distress, then you would know when it’s time to go to call an ambulance or go to an urgent care facility.
  • You can also use the pain scale to teach them when it’s time to reach out to their emergency contacts. You can tell them they can start calling or texting people even when they’re at pain level 2, to encourage them to seek help before it the problem escalates. Just make sure the emergency contacts are aware and have given consent to be on the list.


Stay in touch with their therapist or primary care provider

At the end of the day, the person that is most equipped to help your loved one manage their symptoms is their therapist and/or primary care provider. The experts are experts for a reason; they studied this for the majority of their lives, and they are up-to-the-minute on the latest research, strategies, treatment plans, medications, and developments that can truly put an end to mental health illnesses. Keep in touch with their therapist or doctor and ask them everything you’re supposed to know and what the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) will allow them to tell you.

Don’t neglect self-care

Caring for a loved one who’s sick—whether physical, mental, or emotional—can take a toll on the caretaker’s own well-being. This is why we need to learn proper boundaries. Here are some tips for how we can also care for ourselves while navigating these circumstances:

  • Remember that it’s not about you; it’s about the sufferer.
  • As much as you may love your family member or friend, you are not their savior; you can only provide support and help to the best of your ability. It’s important to recognize the limits of the care you can provide. You can join support groups set up by groups like NAMI and Mental Health America.
  • Seek support for yourself as well.
  • Get lost in hobbies and other activities that give you joy.

Caring for a mentally ill loved one can be a lonely path to tread. Remember that because mental illnesses and disorders are more common than you think, you are not alone, and you can find support from many people who are also going through similar things. Don’t neglect yourself as you care for others too.

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