When a family member is diagnosed with a mental illness, it is common to experience a range of reactions, such as feeling concerned, powerless, frustrated, sad, helpless, ashamed, guilty and/or uncertain of what lies ahead. These are all normal reactions. This article will highlight ways to improve communication, suggestions for effective interaction, and resources available to help you better understand and help a family member who has a mental illness.
Mental illness typically influences a person’s mood, affective response, behavior, thought process and/or perception of reality. Learning to clearly communicate with someone who has a mental illness can help improve the quality of your interactions. The table at right is a summary of helpful tips for clear communication.
SUGGESTIONS FOR EFFECTIVE INTERACTION
Avoid engaging in a power struggle. Listen to what your family member is telling you. Do not correct or try to change their opinion. Summarize what you hear them saying and reflect it back. This does not mean that you agree with them. Taking the time to understand what the person is feeling is a way to rebuild trust. A person with a mental illness wants to be heard and understood (as do many of us).
Work collaboratively by listening without a specific agenda. Allow the person to participate in decision-making and setting boundaries when necessary. Avoid telling your family member what you think they should do or what they need — this will likely just cause them to become frustrated and/or withdraw from conversation.
Sometimes, it may not be possible to work collaboratively because of broken trust, paranoia or other reasons. In these situations, it is important to recognize that you might not be the best person to help. Is there someone whom your family member connects with more easily, perhaps a close friend, relative, co-worker or teacher? Make sure that the alternate person does not enable or aggravate the situation.
Set boundaries with your family member. You do not need to tolerate verbal or physical abuse. You can respond with something like, “I love you and I am here if you want help but I will not allow you to yell at me.” Give the person space and always ensure that they are safe and not at risk of harming self or others. If necessary, take your family member to the emergency room (or call 9-1-1 if needed) to ensure their safety.
It is important to educate yourself about your family member’s mental illness. The more you understand, the better you are able to help them obtain treatment and manage your reactions constructively. Here are some resources to provide you with information about mental illness, including treatment options and resources available to both you and your family member:
• National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): www.nami.org
• NAMI California: www.namica.org
• Helpful tips for families: www.namiyolo.org/tipsforfamilies.html
• Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health: www.dmh.lacounty.gov
• Los Angeles County ACCESS hotline: Dial 2-1-1 for information on mental health resources
In addition to educating yourself about mental illness, it is important to remember that you do not have to do this on your own. Make sure to get the support you need. Being a caretaker is often a stressful job. Talk with a psychologist and/or find a support group for family members of someone with a mental illness. Check the NAMI websites for information about local support groups. Remember, you cannot effectively manage others’ care if you are not managing your own.
If you would like to learn additional tools to help a family member with mental illness and/or could benefit from additional support as a caretaker of someone with a mental illness, please contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 to schedule a confidential appointment.