When a loved one has mental health problems
As a therapist, I not only encounter people who have mental illness but also often their spouses or parents. Because the focus is on the client, family members are often overlooked, even though they are greatly impacted.
When someone close to you has a mental health problem, you can deal with situation best by learning as much about it as possible. Acquiring skills and tools to better interact with that person will reduce tension and anxiety on both sides.
You should know about the medication your child or spouse is taking. Educate yourself about dosage, side effects, expected outcomes, and interactions with other medications, alcohol, or drugs. This will help you to identify early if something is not working right. With this information, you can work with the client and professionals to understand and guide treatment options. The Internet provides a wealth of information about mental health problems, but the quality of the information varies widely. Your loved one’s therapist or doctor can provide much more individual information.
Another invaluable source for information is your child or partner himself. Learn as much as possible from them about their symptoms, triggers, and needs. Knowing about the specifics of your loved one’s problem will enable you to support them better. This will help both of you to be happier and avoid some of the more common problems that often arise.
One of the biggest issues parents and partners face is distinguishing between true limitations and unhealthy manipulation. For example, if your son tells you he can’t finish his homework because of his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), he might simply be trying to avoid the work, or he might truly be unable to complete the task. Recognizing the difference between the two is one of the most difficult skills to develop. As you learn to do this, you can place realistic and achievable demands while providing support. This will improve your relationship and will prevent many arguments and problems.
Once you know more about the true limitations of your child or partner, you will know which expectations are valid. Once they understand these limitations, most people will have to adjust some of their dreams and hopes for the future. For example, your child with Asperger’s Syndrome may not be an athlete like you were in high school. Or your husband with depression may not be as excited as you would like about your plan to start your own business and might not be able to support you practically or emotionally. You will most likely have to change smaller things, too, such as your nutrition or your daily routine.
Most people with mental health problems do best with a predictable structure and a low amount of stress. Planning things ahead of time can mean the difference between a harmonious household and chaos. However, despite your best efforts, some symptoms are hard to control and will surface anyway. Being flexible and reacting to the daily changes in mood and behavior is one of the biggest challenges for parents or partners.
Even when you adjust your home environment in the best way possible and support your loved one as much as you can, he or she will have to interact with the outside world. The issue then is how much information to share with people outside of your immediate family. Unfortunately, mental illness still has a stigma attached to it and many people might not want extended family, teachers, or coworkers to know about it. However, the more people understand about your situation, the more accommodating they tend to be. As an example, a teacher should know what kind of behavior to expect from a student and how to help him or her succeed. And for yourself, it is easier to ask for support and understanding when others know what is going on in your life. Of course there will be people who will give you unsolicited advice or who unfairly judge you and your family. Try to educate them, but if they remain uncooperative and unkind, walk away and find more supportive people.
Avoiding unhelpful people as much as possible is an important part of self care, which is crucial when you live with someone who suffers from mental illness. You might not be able to rely on your spouse as much as your friends depend on their partners. You might feel overwhelmed with taking care of your child and you might feel guilty about not wanting to do it all the time. If you don’t take care of yourself, you will eventually be unable to cope with your own demands, let alone the demands of the other person. It is important that you take breaks and develop a support system. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to meet other people who are in similar situations. If you can’t find a local group that seems to fit your situation, you can start your own. You might be surprised how many people struggle with problems just like yours.
Learning these skills and implementing these changes is not easy. If you find that you are struggling, it is okay to seek professional help for yourself, as well as for your child or partner. Hopefully, you and your loved one will come to a point where you can face upcoming challenges together and enjoy the good times in between.
- Antje Rath
- May 2014