By Kimberly Zapata
Watching a loved one struggle with a mental illness is hard. Very hard. However, watching them struggle in secret and silence is beyond difficult. It is gut wrenching. But what can you do to help someone living with mental illness, specifically when they cannot or do not want to help themselves? Unfortunately, not too much.
You cannot force your brother into therapy. You cannot drag your mother into a doctor’s office, and you cannot jam medication down your spouse’s throat.
However, there are a few things you can to comfort those you love, to support those you love, to and to help them understand they may have a mental health problem.
Listen To Them And Talk With Them (Not To Them)
Perhaps the best thing you can do to support your family member is to listen to them. Just listen. Why? Because, if you listen without judgment or bias, your family member will feel heard and understood. They may feel a little less crazy, and little less alone, and not only will your empathy and ear show them you care, it may help you figure out what to say — and how to say it — when you talk with them. For example, “wow, XYZ must be hard for you. I can only imagine what you are feeling. How can I help? What can I do to support you?
This is also the perfect time to interject personal examples from your life and your mental health experiences, if you have any. However, in order for this approach to work you must be calm, compassionate and respectful and avoid being condescending or pushy, giving ultimatums, or making demands/accusations. Just as an alcoholic will not stop drinking until they are ready, some struggling with mental health issues will not be willing to get help until they have hit their “bottom,” so just let your loved one know you’re there to listen, and you are willing to help in whatever way(s) you can.
Many who refuse to get help do so not because they enjoy pain and suffering, they refuse help because they do not understand their problem, they do not believe they have a problem, and/or they don’t want to be seen as “insane” or “crazy.” The good news is that all of these reasons can be combatted using the same tool: information. Good, quality information. In fact, according to Psych Guides, “when it comes to helping a loved one with mental health problems, providing them with quality information on their disorder is essential.” So do some research and provide your loved one with as much information as possible.
Don’t Give Up — But Know When To Walk Away
If your family member remains unwilling to see a doctor or mental health professional, do not shut them out. Instead, leave the dialogue (and proverbial door) open and do not be afraid to have this conversation 10, 20, or 200 times.
However, and this is important: know that there may be times you need to walk away from the situation for your own mental health, or for other personal reasons. This is necessary and okay, as watching your loved one suffer isn’t just painful, it can be paralyzing and exhausting . In these times, see if there is a friend or family member who can check in during your absence, or simply step back and take a breather. (Though your ability to do this will depend on your situation).
That said, if you are worried your family member is at risk of hurting themselves or another, get help. In the United States, you can call the Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255; contact local mobile mental health crisis teams; or simply dial 911.
And Recognize Your Limitations
This may be the hardest point to swallow, but it is the most important one — as it is the one many caregivers tend to forget: you cannot fix your loved one. You cannot cure your loved one, and there is only so much you can do. Your advice and assistance will only get them so far.
Does that mean your efforts are in vain? Not necessarily. In fact, the hope is that with your words, your encouragement, your guidance, and your ear they will come to recognize their illness. The goal is that they will then seek therapy and/or other treatment in their own time. But they may not, and that is a reality you should consider and prepare for.
Whatever happens, remember that their illness is not your fault. Their illness is not their fault, and their illness isn’t the result of an external trigger, i.e. no amount of love, money, success, or wealth can buy you mental health.