If the odds for experiencing mental illness personally are hovering around 20%, what’s the likelihood of simply knowing someone affected by it? The fact is that each generation appears to become more and more likely to suffer from a mental health issue. Thus, the children of today are especially prone to experience this epidemic—either directly or indirectly. Even from the outside, disorders like depression and anxiety, to name a few, can have a profound impact on life.
Parents, siblings, and best friends all play an important role in the support system required to manage a mental health problem. When a diagnosis is new, it’s especially important to be surrounded by a compassionate network of people. Doctors and professionals are there to help explain and treat the symptoms, but it’s your loved ones who will help you understand and adapt. Take Rebecca Chamaa’s story, for example. Chamaa was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in early adulthood; her personal experience with this disease is often triggered by food. Although she’s now 51 years old, she receives daily support from her three brothers, who understand her individual needs and illness. They can often talk her out of her paranoia, which allows her to eat and keeps her disorder contained. If you want to read more from Chamaa, herself, and others like her, you can find her story here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/sibling-mental-illness_us_59aeca9ee4b0dfaafcf2df44. Fortunately, those who’ve been in this situation before have some wisdom, and they don’t mind sharing it.
One of the first, and most vital, pieces of information they impart is the recommendation to educate yourself. Whether it’s a common illness like a depression, or one you’ve never even heard of before, do your research. If you can understand the symptoms and the signs, you’re more likely to understand your friend/sister/brother/roommate. Calling someone lazy in the midst of a depressive episode or condemning an outburst for someone riddled with anxiety is not helping. Thoughtless comments like this are more likely to arise if/when you don’t truly grasp what they’re going through. While it’s not possible for you to experience a disorder you don’t have, simply taking the time to try to understand where their erratic behavior may be originating from is all they may need in that moment. They’re not asking you to become an expert or full-time caretaker, merely to separate them from their disease. It’s not unusual for those in the throes of mental illness to lash out, or act of character. By acknowledging that you’re aware of this situation and you don’t see them as “bad people,” you can do your part to dissipate any lingering guilt they may have after such an event. Individuals going through treatment are at a substantially higher risk of relapse/deterioration if their support system exhibits dismissiveness and/or a lack of understanding. So, even the small acts of caring can have a profound impact on your loved one.
Unfortunately, the same risk is present in what is, essentially, the opposite situation; where the family becomes overly involved. Those who are too emotionally dependent on the success or failure of another’s mental health treatment tend to exacerbate the problem, rather than help it. First of all, it’s never recommended to tie your mental health so closely with another’s—regardless of whether illness is involved or not—but it also places a lot of extra pressure on the person already going through treatment. Experts often warn the friends, families, and loved ones that whatever the individual is going through isn’t caused by them; therefore, it cannot be cured by them. They can help, but be sure any expectations are realistic. Here’s one common cautionary tale:
A loved one spends several weeks in the hospital. When they’re out, the family assumes that the hospital stay has cured them. The individual wants to make up for lost time at school, so they ramp up their class schedule by taking extra courses. By doing so, their stress level escalates and they end up having a relapse.
In this case, allowing the individual to set a slower pace would’ve been preferable, since each subsequent episode causes additional psychological damage. However, adjusting expectations isn’t easy for a disorder that changes by the day. Keeping your outlook fluid, though, and reevaluating at different stages of the illness will allow you all to stay on top of it. Want some more tips from those with some experience dealing with this? We found this article from Psych Central to be particularly beneficial: https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-ways-to-support-a-loved-one-with-serious-mental-illness/.
One of the biggest things to remember throughout the whole process, whether you’re the patient or a member of their support system, is to allow others to help. Be involved with their professional treatment team, reach out to other families experiencing similar struggles, and don’t prohibit younger siblings from helping. While mental illness isn’t the easiest thing to explain, children are full of surprises, and they usually excel at being supportive. Also, don’t forget that the mental health statistics are climbing with each generation, so teaching empathy will continue to be an important lesson for the future.