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How Family Kindness Can Help Heal Mental Illness

Love, acceptance, and patience are more effective tools than you can imagine

When someone in the family is ill, with a mental disorder or otherwise, it becomes a family challenge. The willingness to accept the diagnosis, to look for help, to go beyond criticism, blame and judgment will not guarantee recovery, but can make it more likely. Denial and disapproval will only makes things worse.

First and foremost, keep yourself well. Avoid falling into the role of ‘fixer’ and ‘savior’. No matter how much love you have for someone, it cannot save them. Love cannot fix, but it can support. Pace yourself. Have realistic expectations. Over-extending yourself will only cause further problems in the long run. Offering a strong shoulder, objectivity and unconditional (to the best of anyone’s ability) acceptance, is valuable beyond measure. Although your actions may seem to have little impact– they make a difference, trust me.

Family support, in my opinion, (and by family, I mean either our biological family or our chosen one) is vital to recovery. It helps minimize damage that would otherwise take place had the support not been there in the first place. As a mental health worker I have seen the challenges caused by parents or relatives who at best refuse to recognize the illness, or worse ostracize those struggling from the family. Hence the importance of finding peers or other friends who are able to offer understanding.

As I began my journey back to health, my parents’ acceptance and healthy boundary setting was and is pivotal in my recovery. Even as I denied my mood disorder, I knew in the back of my mind, my parents were a ‘soft place to fall’. When I eventually recognized I needed help, I knew I could turn to them. And I did. Don’t think your kindness falls on deaf ears – our soul or unconscious registers far more than we realize.

It was also essential my parents avoided becoming overly involved. At a time when all you may want to do is rush in, take over, mend past financial mistakes and solve unfinished business, sometimes the best course of action is to practice temperance.

When my mom and dad trusted (or at least acted as if they trusted) I could manage certain responsibilities once I had found some stability, it forced me to step up to the plate and try. As my parents believed in me, I began to believe in myself. That’s not to say they didn’t spend many a night chewing their nails and wringing their hands, however.

Tips for supporting a loved one:

1. Inform yourself as much as possible about the illness being faced. Your local Mental Health Associations have terrific resources to help you understand the illness and the route recovery often takes. It also is an ideal place to find others going through or who have gone through similar experiences.

An excellent reading resource is “I Am Not Sick. I Don’t Need Help!” by Dr. Xavier Amador. This easy-read gives practical suggestions about how to help those with a mental illness who don’t believe they are sick. The process out of denial into acceptance and insight is one only that person can take. You cannot unfortunately accept the illness for them. Love and compassion, an open mind and accurate information will help however. Both US and Canadian resources are listed at the end of the post.

2. If your family member doesn’t believe she or he has an illness, find out why. Start a dialogue, not a debate. When you discover the reasons for resistance, erroneous assumptions can start to be corrected and new actions can take place. I resisted both diagnosis and medication ferociously for many years for at least three reasons:

i) Parts of my psychoses and mood disorder had spiritual components. I feared a psychiatrist and psychiatric label would brand my insights as pathological and part of the disease, something to be discarded and forgotten. In order to feel secure enough to explore the medical options of which I was so wary, I needed a healthcare provider I could trust. A psychiatrist who, if not willing to consider my perspective, at least not condemn it. My unwillingness to work with a psychiatrist stemmed from bad experiences others had had and my fear that I would have no voice, that I would be beaten into conformity, not well-being. As a family member, you can help advocate for the best possible professional, the one most suited and qualified for your loved one. Or at minimum, demand the best from the professional you work with.

My parents instilled in me the courage to ask for what I need when my needs are not being met. And when I could not do this (depression has a nasty way of immobilizing assertiveness), my father would go with me and act on my behalf. Some of us don’t have families who supports us in way that help. The road is much harder for us abandoned by our circle of relatives. But those of us with responsive siblings and parents, aunts and uncles, know how valuable these partnerships can be.

ii) I was also very suspect of medication. It was a ‘cop-out’, a ‘cover-up’ solution to a strictly psychological problem I thought. It would put me in a ‘Stepford-like’ stupor, relentlessly grinning with no use of my faculties. I needed accurate information and a doctor without his/her own agenda to explore the use of medicine. I needed to understand that my mental illness had both biological and psychological roots.

If you determine why your loved one is so strongly resisting treatment or diagnosis, you can investigate those objections together and let him or her come to her own conclusions.

3. Instead of guessing what works: ask. Your family member can tell you what would help most. Asking how you could support demonstrates you don’t think you know best (even if you believe you do). It gives room for empowerment and self-awareness to take root. See if the requests are doable. Be honest with what you can take on. Once the discussion begins, keep it going. People’s needs shift with the path of the illness.

4. Seek counseling for yourself. The burden of dealing with a chronic and severe illness within a family is an enormous stress and the feelings that arise, conflicting. When my mother was ill with the swings of severe depression, mania, and anxiety, I was worried as well as angry. I needed someone outside the family to freely discuss my frustrations and hurt without the fear of upsetting her. A qualified therapist offers clarity, objectivity, solutions not previously seen and a place to safely deal with the emotions rising from such difficult circumstances. The healthier you are, the better equipped you become to handle demanding situations.

There is affordable counseling available. It takes some digging to discover but it does exist. Your church, Family Services Agencies, even local colleges and universities sometimes offer supervised practices, and some therapists have sliding fee scales. If you can’t find anything reasonably priced, keep looking and ask others. If we create the demand, there will be a supply. Just ensure those offering services at reduced rates, still have the appropriate credentials and experience. If you are going to put yourself in the care of someone, make sure that someone is qualified.

5. Finally, check out support groups for family members and those experiencing mental illness. The resources listed below as well as community mental health teams, hospitals and your family doctor will either offer good programs or know of some. Check your local area for specific groups.

Your love, acceptance and patience are more effective than you will ever realize. Although you may feel helpless and see little progress at times, without those three elements– any other kind of help is empty. It does get better. And please remember, treat yourself with kindness and find adequate support for yourself. A challenge like this is not easy – for anyone.

Although I railed against my parents help for years, all those years that they did support me, even while I was refusing it, made a huge positive impact. And that consistent presence, kindness and support was the reason why I felt safe enough to go to them when I realized I did need help.

© 2014 Victoria Maxwell

Photo: Pixabay/Hans Braxmeier