Do you know or love someone who suffers from a mental illness? If you answered “yes,” then you’re like most of us. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 17 Americans suffers from a serious mental illness in a given year. Mental Illnesses are gaining awareness in the national conversation, but many sufferers are still silent about their psychiatric problems with friends and family. More than half of those with mental illness may not be receiving treatment.
If you have a loved one who suffers from mental illness, this list of Do’s and Don’ts can help you be a source of support:
• Acknowledge the illness.
Mental Illness can leave people feeling isolated and alone. Making the disease subject taboo contributes to isolation.
• Talk openly and offer support.
Mental health symptoms can be very distressing. Your loved one will likely need emotional support. Ask what you can do to make things easier.
• Facilitate access to professional help.
Mental illnesses can be serious and disabling. If your loved one needs to see a physician, offer to help him find an appropriate mental health professional or team.
• Share your observations with doctors who provide care.
Offer to attend appointments. Many mental illnesses include impaired insight, so ask if you can share important observations with the doctor.
• Ask if any current medical problems or medications could be the cause of the mental health symptoms.
Some mental health symptoms can result from general medical illnesses. Medical tests can rule out underlying medical causes for mental health symptoms.
• Attend a support group for families.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers groups for people who suffer from mental illnesses and for their families.
• Report any serious side effects to the doctor.
When your loved one is receiving treatment, notify the doctor right away if he has any problems you believe may be caused by the treatment. All medications can have side effects, and talk therapies can have side effects as well.
• Diagnose your loved one from a book or a list of symptoms on the internet.
With all the nuances of human mood and behavior, it’s easy to diagnose yourself or your loved one with incorrectly on your own. Make sure you seek a diagnosis from a trusted professional.
• Encourage self-medication with substances of abuse.
Some people try to control mental health symptoms with alcohol, marijuana, or other substances. Discourage such self-medication. It could make the illness worse.
• Be judgmental.
Many people who experience mental health symptoms find them embarrassing to tell others. As a result, people may not get the treatment they need. If you say things like, “You wouldn’t have these problems if you ate healthier foods,” you can make your loved one feel worse and drive him away from the care he needs.
• Tell your loved one to pray or attend religious services instead see a mental health professional.
Although religious faith is a healthy source of strength for those with mental illness, many serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia will not improve without proper medical treatments.
• Let your loved one give up before treatments have a chance to work.
Treatments won’t cure symptoms right away. Encourage your loved one to hang in there and give treatments time to work. If he doesn’t get better, the doctor may adjust the plan.
• Support changes to treatment without consulting the doctor.
Changing medication or a therapy program without permission can lead to relapse or serious health consequences.
• Ask your loved one to stop treatment as soon as he/she starts feeling better.
Many people want to stop mental health treatment as soon as they begin feeling better, but this is a mistake. Symptoms are likely to return without a long period of stability. Ask the doctor how long treatment should continue once symptoms are fully controlled.
Dr. Deuter is a psychiatrist who specializes in the care of emerging adults.