One thing I commonly see is that people with mental illness are judged. This judgment often characterizes the ill person as inferior, dangerous, dirty, lazy, not intelligent or in some other negative light. This is not only unfair, it also damages the self-esteem and confidence of the ill person. The judgment is then used to discriminate, shun or avoid the ill person. What is needed is empathy and compassion, not judgment.
The little statement “It is what it is” can be a really powerful statement. It helped me to accept that I cannot control everything but I can still choose to take action. It let me know that I am not responsible for everything and therefore I cannot change everything. This statement does not mean that you should be ambivalent or give up easily, but when there is something you cannot control or change then initial acceptance is an option. Following acceptance, there are often opportunities to advocate for change or to take action. When you think about a statement like “someone in my family has mental illness” that is a fact (it is what it is) so accept the fact and do whatever you can to adapt and take action so that you can deal with the fact. This may be getting educated about mental illness, arranging additional support, taking a break, or doing anything that will help you to deal with the situation.
Isolating or withdrawing from society is quite common with mental illness. During the first few months of her illness my daughter lost all her friends from school, she stopped communicating in the home and spent most of her time alone in her room. I think many of her friends abandoned her because they did not know how to interact with her. Some may even have been frightened or thought that she was not a good influence. It was unfortunate but most of them probably had very little knowledge about mental illness. It can be very unnerving being with someone suffering from psychosis. It took several years before my daughter had any companions other than me and her brothers. It was only when she joined the psycho-social rehabilitation clubhouse that she started to make friends again.
Humor is a great stress reliever. You might think there is nothing funny about mental illness and you would be mostly correct. However, being able to release stress by seeing some humor or irony in some of the situations that occur, helps keep things real. I’m not sure how to explain exactly what I mean, but one example would be the “Stand-Up-For-Mental-Health” program which teaches people with lived experience of mental health problems to perform stand-up comedy. “Google” the program website and watch some of the performances. My daughter did the program and along with others performed in front of over two-hundred people. This performance was instrumental in increasing her self-esteem and confidence. The ability to laugh at herself has made a big difference in her life.
Getting help for myself was key to me being able to put things in perspective and handle the stress involved when caring for a person with mental illness. If I had gone along without getting help and becoming involved, then I would not be in the position that I am now, where I am able to help other people. Help for me was family support meetings and taking courses to learn about mental health and self-care. I learned I was not alone and there is no shame in leaning on others for help through difficult times. Most people take great pleasure from being able to help.
Family support can also mean support for families of people with a mental illness. This support is often facilitated by other family members who are going through or have gone through the experience of having a family member with a mental illness. These family peer facilitators share knowledge and strategies that work for them and are understanding listeners who have experienced supporting a loved one with mental illness. Support for families can also be provided by service providers or mental health professionals. There was very little support for families in the past, but in recent years it has been improving.
Family support for people with a mental illness can be a huge aid to recovery. When I use the term family here, I am including any primary caregiver, immediate or extended family members, close friend or anyone who has the interests of the ill person at heart, and who is providing support. Unfortunately, I found out first hand that the primary caregiver is often the one who the ill person uses as an outlet for their frustration and anger. My key was to not take it personally because I understood that my daughter did not mean the things she was saying, it was the illness talking, she was scared, frustrated and just needed someone to hear her. As she is going through recovery it is clear that she is appreciative that I stand by her, and she is remorseful following any incidents, that are thankfully few and far between now. Without family support, many people with mental illness end up living on the streets, or at the very least have a much harder time accessing services to get regular treatment.
Fear of being locked in a padded room for the rest of her life kept my daughter from telling anyone about the voices she was hearing. For nearly two years she suffered alone. This not only highlights the fear involved, but also a lack of understanding about mental health. At the time, she had no education about mental health from school and her ideas were formed from movies. Thankfully there are now changes being introduced to the school curriculum and mental health awareness is being raised. My daughter has spent the last two years telling her story in local high schools to encourage anyone experiencing problems to seek help. As a family member, I had no idea that my daughter was suffering in silence. I can make all kinds of excuses but I should have been more aware. What I did become aware of were the ongoing fears she was experiencing due to the voices. The only reason I saw this was because I became educated and involved. Seeing the fear was a big motivator in me supporting her with unconditional love.
Empathy and unconditional love helped me to understand and accept mental illness. Life was hell for a while but when I stopped to think what my daughter was experiencing; I saw things in a whole new light. I saw the truth. It was not her choice to get ill, her life is more messed up than mine, and I know she suffered a lot of fear, confusion, and loss of identity. She needed my unconditional love and empathy, not anger and disparagement. It took some time but when I convinced her that I was on her side in battling mental illness, our relationship improved greatly.
Emotions influence behavior and my daughter became very sensitive to emotional fluctuations. A simple harmless comment would cause an angry emotional outburst along with associated bad behavior. This caused me to feel like I was walking on eggshells whenever I was around her. I was afraid to speak in case it brought on an angry outburst. This was tough and I always tried to be especially conscious of the words I was using. I have heard this same sentiment from other family members. It’s no fun when you can’t speak for fear of causing a huge emotional outburst from your loved one. After I had learned to handle the anger through good communication, I became more comfortable and do not worry about angry outbursts. I still have to be very careful with anything that could be construed as criticism because my daughter’s self-esteem is still very fragile, and even non-intended criticism sends her into depression.