Guest Author - Melissa Weise, LCSW
We all want happiness for the ones that we love. It is part of loving them. It is therefore often horribly painful to watch a loved one suffer with a mental illness such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or depression. While it is difficult to cope with watching any loved one suffer from anything, suffering from a mental illness is particularly excruciating because of the innate nature of mental illnesses themselves.
Mental illnesses are not ďcurableĒ in any traditional sense of the word and will often be life-long and chronic with better times than others. Through many psychological breakthroughs, the symptoms of mental illness can often be managed through a good framework of therapy, skills training, and medication. On the other hand, sometimes the symptoms cannot be managed or are inconsistently managed even with the best care. This is very frustrating for both the person experiencing the mental illness, their loved ones and even their care providers.
Mental illnesses also are often not recognized as being valid by many aspects of western culture. Because they are tied up in behaviors and emotions which our culture often expect to be under a personís direct control, mental illness is often written off as laziness, meanness or stupidity. Because they are not validated by society, mental illnesses are also often misunderstood by the most well-meaning individuals as being part of mental retardation (which they arenít) or as a result of victimization (which they arenít always). So, to deal with this, families and individuals who suffer with these conditions usually work very hard to hide them from society for many valid reasons such as the fear of being shunned, the fear of being labeled, the fear of losing work, or the fear of being feared.
Additionally, treatments of mental illness vary widely, even across the same diagnosis. There are many different theories on how to best treat each mental illness and different providers will have different philosophies on including family and loved ones in this care. Because of western cultureís reaction to mental illness, mental health professionals have developed a very strong code of confidentiality to protect the person experiencing the mental illness and sometimes this can feel very isolating for the people who love them. Providers may or may not be willing to speak to family members or loved ones or include them in the care at all. Because loved ones are often the ones who endure the behaviors of mental illness at home, this can be terrifically frustrating particularly when it feels that things are not being adequately managed.
Mental illnesses, unlike other illnesses manifest through not only emotions but behaviors which can be frustrating, angering or even scary. Threats of self harm, lack of self care, suspiciousness, delusions, verbal abuse, belligerence and argumentativeness, lies, and assault can be common manifestations of severe mental illness and difficult to endure from people that you love.
Because of these very real things, if you have a family member or loved one with a mental illness, you need to work to become educated and care for yourself with diligence. There are several organizations that work to support those who love and care for individuals with mental illness such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (link below). Often, these organizations will offer support groups and informative workshops. For good local information, call your local mental health clinic or hospital.
You may want to become more involved your loved ones care. In order to do this, you must first ask for permission from your loved one. It is helpful if during this discussion for you to clearly explain that the reasons behind wanting to become involved such as wanting to help learn more about their condition and how to be helpful in the home. If the loved one gives you permission, you will need to have them sign a release of information with all of the providers that they are giving you permission to talk to. These providers will have these forms in their offices and you need to have your loved one ask them to fill one out so that they can sign and then the providers can talk with you. Otherwise, there are strict laws that do not allow providers to talk to you if your family member is over the age of 18. If you do become more involved, you may even want to search out additional providers such as specialized therapists, medication prescribers, skills groups, vocational services, or other state provided services. Often there will be an application process to enroll, but many states offer helpful services to help support individuals with severe mental illnesses so that they can live safely in their communities and with their families. A federal program called SAMHSA (linked below) can be helpful in finding these programs in your area.
Finally, if you are caring for a loved one with a mental illness, you need to remember to also care for yourself. If can be terrifically emotionally and physically draining to watch a loved one with one of these conditions or endure the behaviors associated with it. Loved ones and family members also report feeling guilty taking time away or caring for themselves but you need to remember that it is essential in order to keep yourself strong in order to care for them. Give yourself permission to care for yourself so that you can provide them with the best care and love that you know they deserve.