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For Family & Friends

Often family members and friends are understandably and deeply concerned about their loved ones with mental illness.  They can run through a whole slew of emotions and not know where to turn.  Below are some important reminders and advice for your from someone who has mental illness.

Nothing you did caused your loved one to have mental illness.
Parents may blame themselves and think if only they had been better parents...or didn't push too hard in this area, or that area, etc.  This is not true.  Someone can have a pre-disposition for a chemical imbalance or depression due to heredity/genetics in the family.  I have had to deal with the possibility of my daughter may show signs of struggling with some kind of  mental disorder, but so far she has not exhibited anything other than situational depression that passes.  But we can pass on many illnesses to our children, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  Diabetes is treatable with medication just as mental illness is treatable.  

Sometimes mental disorders can skip generations.  I found out around my first depressive episode that my paternal grandmother went to see a psychiatrist for about 7 years for her 'nerves'.  I never learned what diagnosis was given to her, but it was rather comforting to know, especially since I knew her to be a very intelligent strong woman.  My father, I believe, had depression, but was never treated for it.  But I could see his mood change sometimes and sensed he was feeling down.  BUT YOU SHOULD ALSO KNOW....that just because a parent has mental illness does NOT automatically mean their children will have mental illness.  They have an increased chance, but it's not automatic.  I have met many people who are bi-polar and their children are fine.  Hopefully, reading this will not make any parents or even children paranoid they are going to end up with mental illness.  Our daughter knows it's a possibility, but she is not afraid of it.  The education she has received over the years about it and seeing how I have been treated successfully with medication and counseling, I believe has eased her mind.  I hope and pray that she will never struggle with it.  But I understand the paranoia.  And I also know that education is the best tool for anyone learning about any illness they may potentially encounter.  Mental illness is talked about far greater now than when I was starting my own journey with it.  People are more educated about it now than ever. (*See 'Educate yourself' below)

Your loved one needs a support system.
This is extremely important to the one with mental illness.  Otherwise, they feel more alone in their battle and will likely get worse.  All patients of mental illness need support from people who really care about them and not treat them like they are a burden, i.e.--'here we go again with so and so.'  It is important for me that I can count on my husband to always be there for me, loving me through the pain.  My mother and sister have been tremendously supportive of me.  And we have all learned a lot more about depression and OCD and mental illness, in general.

If your loved one is hospitalized--go visit them!  Sometimes, the highlight of their day is visiting hours.  Ask about arranging a family group session monitored by a social worker or other professional, such as a therapist.  These sessions can be most beneficial to all involved in resolving any family issues and educating the family about the illness  We all have a responsbility to educate ourselves regarding what we don't understand and NEED to understand.

It is far easier for you, as a family member or friend to instigate visiting.  The person with the mental disorder has no energy right now and is just fighting day-to-day emotionally to be 'okay.'  They don't want to have to beg someone to come visit them or be a part of a family group session.  Step up so they don't have to.  If they reject your request to visit--don't think all is lost.  Mental health patients have lots of time to think.  They may actually appreciate you making the effort, at least to be part of helping them.

Educate yourself.
Take the time to educate yourself and other family members/friends with the diagnosis your loved one was given.  Your loved one needs to be educated--which is what he/she will get likely from a psychiatrist.  But not information about the diagnosis is given unless asked.  

It's part of mental health responsibility for the patients to educate themselves.  Not everyone understands mental health or even more specifically--a mental health illness.  Most people fear what they don't understand.  Education makes one understand what they are dealing with which will, in turn, make you not so afraid of the situation.  I understand the fear of people with mental illness.  I used to be one of them.  

When I was little, I had this innate fear of going 'crazy'.  When I was little and my sister and I would visit our grandparents--we were friends with a girl whose mother or grandmother--at least the rumor was--she had been in and out of mental hospitals and was considered 'crazy'.  I remember walking back to my grandparents house one day and having to walk by her house.  She lived in a house close to the highway and had a large living room mirror with a crack in it that was covered by tape.  So, I took a risk and peered through the window which was rude, I know.  All of a sudden I saw the woman looking back at me close to the other side of the window.  It scared me half to death!  It was like something out of a horror movie--that's how it felt for me.  Obviously, I ran all the way back to my grandparent's house.  And I remember distinctly telling one my counselor years ago after I was recently diagnosed that I had always been afraid of going crazy--and now it's happened.  Of course, this was a lie I was telling myself.  I was not insane; just really depressed and had OCD.  I also remember being afraid, knowing there was a state hospital for the insane not far from where we lived for the insane.  I actually asked my counselor if I was insane and if I was going to end up there.  Well, as you can imagine, she said no.  Later on, I looked back at the memory of that poor woman related to my childhood friend and think she was probably mentally ill.  She was someone suffering needing compassion and empathy.  I came to understand, myself a little bit of what she was probably experiencing and how alone she felt as I did after being diagnosed.

Your loved one will likely grieve their diagnosis.  And so will you.
You may have just learned that your loved one or friend has been diagnosed with a mental illness or have seen them go through some serious depression and mental anguish.  It is important to take time to grieve that your loved one will go through struggles you have no control over.  The one who has been diagnosed may need to grieve over what they feel is a loss of themselves--a loss of what they used to be able to do, but maybe no longer can because the stress is too much.  This is what happened to me.  I had to give up a career I enjoyed and had opportunities in front of me to advance in my field.  I had to turn them all down because I knew my health could not take the stress.  It was a major boundary I had to put in place.  I left my career and went to a clerical position.  Then, in that job, I moved to half-time work.  I eventually had to quit working altogether.  It was a process of grief for me to realize I cannot do the things I used to, especially when I am a self-motivated person.  It has been trial and error for me to learn as my life has gone on what I can handle and what I cannot and learning how to set those boundaries for myself.  I used to tell people it's like a comparison to that of an athlete who has trained years to attain a higher level of expertise.  Then suddenly, the athlete has some kind of accident and his legs are damaged.  He finds he can no longer push his body to accomplish the same goals.  For me, that is what it feels like mentally.  He or she must adapt their lifestyle to now fit with what they are capable of doing.  It was sad and frustrating for me at first.

It took a while for my husband to start his grieving process.  I think that was due to not wanting to face what was happening to me.  He was angry and angry at God.  He had never seen anything like my depression in his life.  He started to finally let these feelings and thoughts come out.  He told me that he had been distancing himself from me, but it was anger at the illness; not at me.  He assured me of his love for me and that had not changed.  Assurance is often a requirement for OCD patients; otherwise, they will obsess over things like this or other thoughts.  But assurance is good for everyone who is suffering mentally.  They may have to develop a whole new routine for their life, as I did.  Knowing their family and friends are behind them every step of the way will go a long way for their recovery and treatment.  Don't treat them differently.  Just be there.  You may not know what to say at times if they start to share their thoughts, feelings, but that's okay.  Your presence can speak volumes to them.