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How to Support a Loved One with a Mental Illness or Addiction

Silver Hill Hospital

When a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness or substance abuse disorder, it can be scary and confusing for family and friends. Remember that the person diagnosed with the illness is also feeling overwhelmed. Although it’s not the case, when a person hears their diagnosis they sometimes feel like life as they knew it is over. However, with proper treatment and support, people with mental illness and substance use disorders can and do live healthy, fulfilling lives. The road to recovery isn’t easy and there will be bumps along the way. Your support is vital. Here are some ways you can help.

1. Educate Yourself
Learn all you can about the condition your loved one has been diagnosed with. The knowledge will allow you to recognize and understand the symptoms the person is experiencing. You will be able to be more empathetic and less likely to say something like “snap out of it” or minimize their symptoms by saying something like “everyone has bad days.” If your friend or family member gives you permission, go with them to doctor appointments in the beginning to deepen your understanding of the illness. Remember that nobody chooses to have a mental illness or addiction. They are medical conditions just like heart disease or diabetes.

2. Encourage Treatment
If you begin to notice symptoms of a mental illness or addiction or if a diagnosis has already been made, encourage the person to seek and follow through with treatment. Sometimes the person may not believe there is anything wrong or they don’t think their problems are bad enough for treatment. There is still a lot of stigma surrounding these disorders so many people feel ashamed and worry they will be labeled “crazy” if they seek help. It’s hard to start this delicate conversation. Here are some helpful tips. Always be kind and don’t argue when having a discussion like this. If the person refuses to go to a mental health professional, encouraging them to go to their primary care doctor is a good first step. That feels less intimidating. If you fear your friend or family member is suicidal, call 911, take them to the nearest emergency room or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

3. Support Without Taking Over
When you see someone you love struggling with any type of illness, it’s natural to feel like you want to fix it. You do not have the power to fix a mental illness or addiction or make it go away. The best way to help is to love and support the person. But what does that mean? Support doesn’t mean do everything for a person. Unless they are incapable of making their own decisions or care for themselves, don’t take over responsibility for their treatment. They still have the right to make their own decisions and be independent. Don’t nag about their medication. Don’t tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. Support the person by asking if there is anything you could do to be helpful. Sometimes cooking a meal or folding a basket of laundry is a huge help because simple tasks can be overwhelming. Let them know you are always there (and mean it). Listen. Don’t offer unsolicited advice, just listen without judging. Here are some ways to support your family member from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

4. Help Yourself
When someone in your life is dealing with a mental illness or addiction, it is draining on the you also. You need to care for yourself in order to be helpful to your loved one. Consider attending a support group to connect with others in similar situations. NAMI offers a wide variety of educational programs and support groups for family and friends. It may also be beneficial to talk to a therapist. When you talk to a mental health professional, you can voice all of your concerns and frustrations and they can help you come up with ways to manage your stress and communicate with your loved ones.

One thing to always remember is a diagnosis doesn’t define a person. When you look at your relative or friend, don’t view them in a different way and don’t treat them differently. They may not be in the best place in life right now, but they are still the same person you know and love.