When a Loved One Has a Serious Mental Illness

Reviewed Feb 24, 2017

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Summary

  • Acknowledge the illness
  • Get the right diagnosis
  • Find the most suitable treatment
  • Learn methods of interaction that avoid confrontation
  • Get support for yourself

Who is this stranger? How can I reach him? Why can’t I make her better?

These are some of the questions that family members and close friends face when someone they love has a serious mental illness.

Conditions such as schizophrenia, major depression, and serious bipolar disorder not only cause anguish in those with these illnesses, but they can strain and sometimes break longstanding, close ties. The task of relating to a loved one in such cases can be difficult, draining and not always successful.

Close ties and understanding important

At the same time, those with the issue need the close ties and understanding more than ever. Mental illness can lead not only to private pain but also to public behavior that drives people away and leads to social isolation.

Eric Silver, a Penn State criminologist who published a study on how the mentally ill become victims of violence, has noted that people with serious mental disorders “tend to arouse negative responses from those around them, even among family members and friends.” He says this is particularly true of those with substance abuse disorders or delusional beliefs or hallucinations.” Persons with mental disorders often lack social graces while they engage in conduct that appears crude, bizarre, or even threatening to others,” Silver says.

Learn how to interact

Silver and other experts say friends and family members need to learn methods of interaction that enable them to cope with the person who has the illness while avoiding confrontation, which can sometimes lead to violence. Judy Benson, RN, a nurse practitioner in Omaha, NE, who specializes in psychiatric mental health nursing, says loved ones must learn to act like therapists. “You don’t argue with people about their illness,” she says, even if they’re delusional. And you don’t fight: “The less reactive family members are and the calmer they are, the less potential there is for violence.”

Get the right diagnosis and treatment

The task of maintaining a relationship is made easier (though still not simple) by getting the right treatment. First, acknowledge the illness, get the right diagnosis, and find the most suitable treatment. That’s hard enough in itself. In addition, the loved ones may have to come to terms with their own limits, including their limited power to make things better.

This can be especially painful for parents of teens or young adults who suddenly develop schizophrenia. Stephen Currier, a licensed social worker and vice president of behavioral health services with the May Institute in Norwood, MA, says it’s crucial, and not always easy, to “reach out to professionals who understand the serious mental-illness issues” and, in a sense, give up care of your child to someone else. “All of a sudden [parents] are finding, ‘I can’t make it better,’” says Currier. “They’ve got to let go; that’s got to be awfully hard when you’ve raised a kid for 18 years and you have to give him or her up to someone.”

Currier says the onset of other serious conditions, such as bipolar disorder and depression, raises different issues because it tends to come later in life, when the person typically has formed relationships such as marriage and a family. In this case, the deterioration in behavior—and the erosion of relationships—may be so gradual that family and close friends don’t notice it. For that reason, Currier says a sharp-eyed outsider, such as a primary care doctor who knows how to ask the right questions, can be very important.

Once a serious illness is confirmed, Currier says it’s important not to hold back on the level of treatment. He stresses “aggressiveness”—not being afraid to take advantage of medications, not being afraid to get the patient into an aggressive day program, and so forth. This also means taking a secondary role in the patient’s therapy, as a monitor and observer of care prescribed by professionals, not as the one who “makes it better.” Benson says medication “is basically the answer... people who don’t take medicines and have serious psychological illness just don’t get better.”

And sometimes, even medicine isn’t enough to keep the bonds with the person intact. It’s possible that the person, in spite of everything you and the professionals do, cannot safely live with you—or anywhere else in normal society. You need to be prepared for institutionalization. Also, parents of severely ill children need to plan carefully for their own old age, when they may need care and cannot expect it from the adult child.

Get support for yourself

And what about you? You may face a lifetime of dealing with the illness, though symptoms may become less intense with age. And dealing with any severe mental illness in a loved one, even if it is curable, can lead to anger, pain, embarrassment, and a sense of isolation. For these reasons, experts say, it is essential to get support and not to try going it alone.

The National Mental Health Association (NMHA) advises you to establish a support network and seek counseling, for yourself as well as for the patient and other family members. It’s also important to take time out periodically from caregiving to tend to your own mental health. “Schedule time away to prevent becoming frustrated or angry,” says the NMHA. “If you schedule time for yourself it will help you to keep things in perspective and you may have more patience and compassion for coping or helping your loved one.”

By Tom Gray
Source: The National Mental Health Association; The National Alliance on Mental Illness; Eric Silver, criminologist, Penn State University; Judy Benson, RN, nurse practitioner, Omaha, NE; Stephen Currier, licensed social worker and vice president of behavioral health services, May Institute, Norwood, MA.

Summary

  • Acknowledge the illness
  • Get the right diagnosis
  • Find the most suitable treatment
  • Learn methods of interaction that avoid confrontation
  • Get support for yourself

Who is this stranger? How can I reach him? Why can’t I make her better?

These are some of the questions that family members and close friends face when someone they love has a serious mental illness.

Conditions such as schizophrenia, major depression, and serious bipolar disorder not only cause anguish in those with these illnesses, but they can strain and sometimes break longstanding, close ties. The task of relating to a loved one in such cases can be difficult, draining and not always successful.

Close ties and understanding important

At the same time, those with the issue need the close ties and understanding more than ever. Mental illness can lead not only to private pain but also to public behavior that drives people away and leads to social isolation.

Eric Silver, a Penn State criminologist who published a study on how the mentally ill become victims of violence, has noted that people with serious mental disorders “tend to arouse negative responses from those around them, even among family members and friends.” He says this is particularly true of those with substance abuse disorders or delusional beliefs or hallucinations.” Persons with mental disorders often lack social graces while they engage in conduct that appears crude, bizarre, or even threatening to others,” Silver says.

Learn how to interact

Silver and other experts say friends and family members need to learn methods of interaction that enable them to cope with the person who has the illness while avoiding confrontation, which can sometimes lead to violence. Judy Benson, RN, a nurse practitioner in Omaha, NE, who specializes in psychiatric mental health nursing, says loved ones must learn to act like therapists. “You don’t argue with people about their illness,” she says, even if they’re delusional. And you don’t fight: “The less reactive family members are and the calmer they are, the less potential there is for violence.”

Get the right diagnosis and treatment

The task of maintaining a relationship is made easier (though still not simple) by getting the right treatment. First, acknowledge the illness, get the right diagnosis, and find the most suitable treatment. That’s hard enough in itself. In addition, the loved ones may have to come to terms with their own limits, including their limited power to make things better.

This can be especially painful for parents of teens or young adults who suddenly develop schizophrenia. Stephen Currier, a licensed social worker and vice president of behavioral health services with the May Institute in Norwood, MA, says it’s crucial, and not always easy, to “reach out to professionals who understand the serious mental-illness issues” and, in a sense, give up care of your child to someone else. “All of a sudden [parents] are finding, ‘I can’t make it better,’” says Currier. “They’ve got to let go; that’s got to be awfully hard when you’ve raised a kid for 18 years and you have to give him or her up to someone.”

Currier says the onset of other serious conditions, such as bipolar disorder and depression, raises different issues because it tends to come later in life, when the person typically has formed relationships such as marriage and a family. In this case, the deterioration in behavior—and the erosion of relationships—may be so gradual that family and close friends don’t notice it. For that reason, Currier says a sharp-eyed outsider, such as a primary care doctor who knows how to ask the right questions, can be very important.

Once a serious illness is confirmed, Currier says it’s important not to hold back on the level of treatment. He stresses “aggressiveness”—not being afraid to take advantage of medications, not being afraid to get the patient into an aggressive day program, and so forth. This also means taking a secondary role in the patient’s therapy, as a monitor and observer of care prescribed by professionals, not as the one who “makes it better.” Benson says medication “is basically the answer... people who don’t take medicines and have serious psychological illness just don’t get better.”

And sometimes, even medicine isn’t enough to keep the bonds with the person intact. It’s possible that the person, in spite of everything you and the professionals do, cannot safely live with you—or anywhere else in normal society. You need to be prepared for institutionalization. Also, parents of severely ill children need to plan carefully for their own old age, when they may need care and cannot expect it from the adult child.

Get support for yourself

And what about you? You may face a lifetime of dealing with the illness, though symptoms may become less intense with age. And dealing with any severe mental illness in a loved one, even if it is curable, can lead to anger, pain, embarrassment, and a sense of isolation. For these reasons, experts say, it is essential to get support and not to try going it alone.

The National Mental Health Association (NMHA) advises you to establish a support network and seek counseling, for yourself as well as for the patient and other family members. It’s also important to take time out periodically from caregiving to tend to your own mental health. “Schedule time away to prevent becoming frustrated or angry,” says the NMHA. “If you schedule time for yourself it will help you to keep things in perspective and you may have more patience and compassion for coping or helping your loved one.”

By Tom Gray
Source: The National Mental Health Association; The National Alliance on Mental Illness; Eric Silver, criminologist, Penn State University; Judy Benson, RN, nurse practitioner, Omaha, NE; Stephen Currier, licensed social worker and vice president of behavioral health services, May Institute, Norwood, MA.

Summary

  • Acknowledge the illness
  • Get the right diagnosis
  • Find the most suitable treatment
  • Learn methods of interaction that avoid confrontation
  • Get support for yourself

Who is this stranger? How can I reach him? Why can’t I make her better?

These are some of the questions that family members and close friends face when someone they love has a serious mental illness.

Conditions such as schizophrenia, major depression, and serious bipolar disorder not only cause anguish in those with these illnesses, but they can strain and sometimes break longstanding, close ties. The task of relating to a loved one in such cases can be difficult, draining and not always successful.

Close ties and understanding important

At the same time, those with the issue need the close ties and understanding more than ever. Mental illness can lead not only to private pain but also to public behavior that drives people away and leads to social isolation.

Eric Silver, a Penn State criminologist who published a study on how the mentally ill become victims of violence, has noted that people with serious mental disorders “tend to arouse negative responses from those around them, even among family members and friends.” He says this is particularly true of those with substance abuse disorders or delusional beliefs or hallucinations.” Persons with mental disorders often lack social graces while they engage in conduct that appears crude, bizarre, or even threatening to others,” Silver says.

Learn how to interact

Silver and other experts say friends and family members need to learn methods of interaction that enable them to cope with the person who has the illness while avoiding confrontation, which can sometimes lead to violence. Judy Benson, RN, a nurse practitioner in Omaha, NE, who specializes in psychiatric mental health nursing, says loved ones must learn to act like therapists. “You don’t argue with people about their illness,” she says, even if they’re delusional. And you don’t fight: “The less reactive family members are and the calmer they are, the less potential there is for violence.”

Get the right diagnosis and treatment

The task of maintaining a relationship is made easier (though still not simple) by getting the right treatment. First, acknowledge the illness, get the right diagnosis, and find the most suitable treatment. That’s hard enough in itself. In addition, the loved ones may have to come to terms with their own limits, including their limited power to make things better.

This can be especially painful for parents of teens or young adults who suddenly develop schizophrenia. Stephen Currier, a licensed social worker and vice president of behavioral health services with the May Institute in Norwood, MA, says it’s crucial, and not always easy, to “reach out to professionals who understand the serious mental-illness issues” and, in a sense, give up care of your child to someone else. “All of a sudden [parents] are finding, ‘I can’t make it better,’” says Currier. “They’ve got to let go; that’s got to be awfully hard when you’ve raised a kid for 18 years and you have to give him or her up to someone.”

Currier says the onset of other serious conditions, such as bipolar disorder and depression, raises different issues because it tends to come later in life, when the person typically has formed relationships such as marriage and a family. In this case, the deterioration in behavior—and the erosion of relationships—may be so gradual that family and close friends don’t notice it. For that reason, Currier says a sharp-eyed outsider, such as a primary care doctor who knows how to ask the right questions, can be very important.

Once a serious illness is confirmed, Currier says it’s important not to hold back on the level of treatment. He stresses “aggressiveness”—not being afraid to take advantage of medications, not being afraid to get the patient into an aggressive day program, and so forth. This also means taking a secondary role in the patient’s therapy, as a monitor and observer of care prescribed by professionals, not as the one who “makes it better.” Benson says medication “is basically the answer... people who don’t take medicines and have serious psychological illness just don’t get better.”

And sometimes, even medicine isn’t enough to keep the bonds with the person intact. It’s possible that the person, in spite of everything you and the professionals do, cannot safely live with you—or anywhere else in normal society. You need to be prepared for institutionalization. Also, parents of severely ill children need to plan carefully for their own old age, when they may need care and cannot expect it from the adult child.

Get support for yourself

And what about you? You may face a lifetime of dealing with the illness, though symptoms may become less intense with age. And dealing with any severe mental illness in a loved one, even if it is curable, can lead to anger, pain, embarrassment, and a sense of isolation. For these reasons, experts say, it is essential to get support and not to try going it alone.

The National Mental Health Association (NMHA) advises you to establish a support network and seek counseling, for yourself as well as for the patient and other family members. It’s also important to take time out periodically from caregiving to tend to your own mental health. “Schedule time away to prevent becoming frustrated or angry,” says the NMHA. “If you schedule time for yourself it will help you to keep things in perspective and you may have more patience and compassion for coping or helping your loved one.”

By Tom Gray
Source: The National Mental Health Association; The National Alliance on Mental Illness; Eric Silver, criminologist, Penn State University; Judy Benson, RN, nurse practitioner, Omaha, NE; Stephen Currier, licensed social worker and vice president of behavioral health services, May Institute, Norwood, MA.

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