The stigma and shame surrounding mental illness takes a toll on family members, making it difficult to find support when someone you love has mental illness. It's important for family members to break the silence about mental illness because as caregivers we can feel isolated and alone. Time, resources, and energy are often focused on our loved one's mental health needs, leaving us wondering how to maintain a loving relationship. Here are five ways we can love someone with mental illness (and still love ourselves):
1. Educate yourself about your loved one's diagnosis. Search NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) for the most up-to-date information about mental illness. For resources on teens and mental health, click KidsHealth.
2. Encourage and model self-care and wellness. To function at our best we all need to exercise, eat healthy, and get enough sleep. This is especially true for people with a mental illness. You can help by inviting your loved one to join you in healthy lifestyle choices. Try to avoid binge eating or drinking. Prevention, treatment and recovery from mental illness is possible with quality mental health care.
3. Be a safe person. Your loved one needs a safe person to talk to and trust. As a safe person, you affirm that the person is not defined by the illness. As a safe person you do what you need to do to ensure the safety of yourself and loved one. This means that you have a wellness plan in case of emergencies and will call 911 if you are concerned that your loved one is at risk for self-injury, suicide or harming others. (People with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence than to commit violence.) Help your loved one develop a Wellness Recovery Action Plan.
4. Do not love alone. Loving someone with a mental illness can be the most thrilling and terrifying rollercoaster ride of your life. Don't ride it alone. Find other people to offer you support, encouragement, and guidance. You might benefit from professional counseling yourself or participating in a support group, or a prayer group. NAMI offers a Family-to-Family support network.
5. Know when to take a break. There are times when we cannot be that person. Caregivers need to take breaks before they burn out from emotional exhaustion. If you are feeling overwhelmed, isolated, and scared about your loved one's mental illness and its impact on you, then it is time to re-evaluate the dynamics of the relationship. This is hard. Taking a break does not mean that you don't love the person. It means you are taking a break. Getting some space and time away is healthy, creating time for self-reflection and exploration of the sacrifices you are willing to make for the sake of the relationship. Sometimes taking a break or time apart can help you gain perspective.
Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness, Family, and Church is a raw story of my journey to love myself and family members with mental illness. Like me, you might discover after taking time apart for some soul searching that loving a person with a mental illness is a blessing.