Top 5 Tips for Supporting Someone With Severe Mental Illness
Helping someone with severe mental illness can seem like an overwhelming task. However, by following a few guidelines, you can ensure that you provide the support they need. Listening with empathy and compassion, learning about their illness, seeking intensive treatment, and having realistic expectations can all be instrumental in nurturing their recovery. Even when things are hard, it’s vital to remember the value of your support, regardless of where they are in the healing process.
When someone you love suffers from a severe mental illness, it can be difficult to know what to say, do, and how to act. Even if you deeply want to support them, it is common to feel lost, afraid, frustrated, and hopeless as you navigate their diagnosis and treatment process.
However, social support is essential to helping your loved one recover; they need to know that you are there for them and that they are not alone in this struggle. By exploring these 5 tips for supporting someone with a severe mental illness, you can be a vital part of their healing process while strengthening your relationship and nourishing yourself.
1. Listen with Empathy and Validation
People living with severe mental illness often feel as if those around them do not understand their experiences, leading to shame, isolation, and even guilt. It may indeed be true that you do not understand exactly what it is they are experiencing; after all, if you have not been through mental illness yourself, it can seem to be a foreign and incomprehensible experience. However, you do not have to know what it is like yourself in order to support your loved one. Instead, give them the space to express their own feelings, listen, and let them know that they are heard. Ask them about what they are going through and reassure them that you do not judge them. By making yourself a safe place for them, you can help prevent them from withdrawing inside their illness and losing contact with the world around them. This is an essential part of setting them up for success, as social support is strongly correlated with better outcomes.
Unfortunately, simply listening can sometimes be an intimidating prospect. You may think that you have to offer solutions or say just the right thing. But in reality, simply giving them the opportunity to talk about their problems can be helpful. You do not have to fix them, come up with the perfect answer to their struggles, or convince them that their feelings are incorrect. Instead, just listen, hear them, and offer validation. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness notes:
Validation is simply the acknowledgment that a person has a feeling, even if we don’t agree that it’s an appropriate feeling to have or the response we would have in similar circumstances; validation sounds like, ‘I can understand that you’re angry right now, that must be difficult.’ Allowing our loved ones to see that we acknowledge what they’re feeling can give them freedom to accept that feeling and move on.
Making sure your loved one knows that you acknowledge that their feelings are real and valid regardless of your own perspective can be very powerful.
2. Learn About Their Illness
Many people have preconceived notions about what mental illness looks like but little understanding of the specific symptoms that an illness entails. In a culture where mental illness, particularly severe mental illness, is so often wrapped up in damaging myths, fears, and misconceptions, it is essential to get a clear understanding of your loved one’s condition in order to offer meaningful support. Today, there are infinite online resources that explore mental illness from both clinical and personal perspectives and investigating these can help elucidate what your loved one is going through. You may also wish to speak to mental health professionals or accompany your loved one to a therapy appointment in order to learn more and ask specific questions. This helps you:
- Gain a reality-based understanding of their symptoms.
- Break through damaging myths.
- Learn what their treatment options are.
- Better understand their needs, challenges, and prognosis.
- Identify symptoms they may not recognize.
Not only does this allow you to more clearly see what your loved one is going through and help them feel understood, it will also likely help to alleviate some of your own anxieties and give you direction as you move forward. For many, having concrete, rational information to hold onto helps them avoid catastrophizing and allows them to deal with what is really happening rather than what they fear will happen.
It is vital to remember, however, that each person’s experience of mental illness is unique and doesn’t always align perfectly with textbook definitions or what someone else with the same illness has experienced. As such, it’s important to listen to and acknowledge what your loved one is personally experiencing rather than projecting your own vision of mental illness onto them. Remember too that your loved one is more than their illness, and don’t treat them as if their condition is their whole self.
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3. Seek Intensive Treatment
People living with severe mental illness often rely on loved ones to research treatment options, connect with treatment providers, and participate in monitoring treatment progress. Unfortunately, many people struggling with severe forms of mental illness require more intensive treatment than can be offered in outpatient or short-term residential settings. If your loved one has not achieved meaningful recovery in the treatment environments you have tried thus far, it may be time to look into long-term residential treatment programs.
The residential environment allows for close, continuous monitoring and assessment, giving clinicians a deeper perspective on their diagnosis, struggles, and strengths. Using this information, they can design a comprehensive curriculum of therapies specifically targeted toward their unique needs, including pharmacotherapies, individual therapy, therapy groups, and holistic and experiential therapies. However, the immersive, long-term nature of these programs also means that therapy doesn’t end once an appointment is completed or a group concludes for the day; rather, the residential milieu acts as a therapeutic community, providing ongoing opportunities for gaining deeper insight and developing and practicing coping skills throughout each day. This includes everything from forming and maintaining relationships, to basic self-care, to medication adherence, giving your loved one the chance to improve their independent living skills and bolster their functionality.
Of course, your involvement in treatment is invaluable to healing. After all, mental illness affects the whole family and recovery is very much a family project. By selecting a treatment program that approaches the family as the client and offers dedicated family programming, you ensure that you have every opportunity to participate in the treatment process. With the guidance of experienced, compassionate clinicians and other families who know what you are going through, you can come to more fully understand your loved one’s needs as well as your own. This gives you a framework for supporting your loved one and yourself throughout their time in treatment, as well as when they return home, while also helping you break through the isolation that so many families experience.
4. Have Realistic Expectations
It is natural to want your loved one to recover as quickly and completely as possible. Chances are that you have thought a lot about what life would be like if your loved one got better and everything went back to normal, and that vision may be very specific. It is also common for families to get excited about each new treatment, imagining that it will bring a swift cure and everything will be okay again. However, supporting someone with severe mental illness means having realistic expectations of what their recovery process looks like and accepting them where they are. As Victoria Maxwell, a writer who has been living with bipolar disorder for two decades, says, “The recovery process is not a straight line, nor is it one that happens quickly.”
The truth is that there is no way to create a concrete timeline of recovery. There may be times when tremendous progress is being made only to have them fall back into old patterns. Instead of taking this as a crushing disappointment, accept that recovery is a long-term project and setbacks can be a normal part of that project. It is vital to not lose hope or treat your loved one (or yourself) as a failure if they don’t recover on the schedule you have imagined. Accept the nature of their illness, believe that your loved one is doing what they can to recover, and trust in the treatment process. Long-term treatment programs, in particular, will accommodate you and your loved one according to your needs in the moment and provide the structure that your loved one needs at each stage of recovery. Both you and the treatment program need to stay flexible.
It is also vital to not have a specific vision of what your loved one’s life will be like in recovery. While some people with severe mental illness can go on to live fully independent, productive, stable lives, others will require some form of ongoing support. The mission of treatment, then, is to provide the tools they need to discover and live up to their individual potential, which is different than yours or someone else’s. Support your loved one in exploring and nourishing their own strengths to the best of their ability rather than imposing your own expectations. Allow them to define their own success and celebrate that while accepting their limitations.
5. Remember the Value of Your Support
Research confirms again and again that having the support of loved ones is instrumental to the recovery process and undeniably linked to better treatment outcomes. Even when it’s hard, even when you’re frustrated, even when you fear you’re not getting through and it’s never going to get better, your support is invaluable. As Maxwell says:
Your love, acceptance, and patients are more effective than you will ever realize. My parents will likely never know how important, how life-saving, and life-changing their support was for me, especially when I was in full resistance mode. So 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.
Hanbleceya offers comprehensive, long-term treatment for people struggling with mental illness as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us for more information about our renowned San Diego-based program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.
Image Source: Unsplash user Priscilla du Preez