Mind & Spirit

How to help a loved one with a mental health issue

By: Kate Daley

Getty Images Author: Canadian Living Credits: Getty Images

Mind & Spirit

How to help a loved one with a mental health issue

By: Kate Daley
Helping a loved one struggling with a mental illness can be incredibly stressful for family and friends. It's hard to know what to do and most people's first instinct is to try and fix the problem themselves. We asked Dr. Jan Malat, interim chief, addictions division and medical head of assessment and concurrent disorders at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, for his best advice on how to help both you and your loved one.
 
Have a conversation.
The first step is to talk about the issue with the family member in a very gentle and neutral way. Describe the behaviours that you're seeing and avoid labelling or accusing the person. Use phrases such as, "I've noticed you've been behaving a certain way,” or "I've noticed that you often come home late smelling of alcohol.” Dr. Malat recommends describing what you're noticing without labelling, diagnosing or judging. Labelling someone as an "alcoholic” or "schizophrenic” can put them on the defensive.

Don't try to fix the problem.
Many families get too busy trying to fix or control the problem themselves, rather than encouraging the person to get help early on, says Dr. Malat. "You're not going to treat the condition but you can try to encourage the person to get help," he says. Some families get stuck because the person experiencing mental health issues doesn't want to seek treatment and other family members take on the role of caretaker or rescuer and it ends up creating an unhealthy cycle.

Set boundaries.
It is often a natural instinct to try and rescue the person who is struggling and protect them from negative consequences, says Dr. Malat. But he suggests trying to recognize this instinct and set some boundaries. There's a fine balance between being a supportive and concerned family member and enabling negative behaviours. Whether your loved one has a drinking problem or a mood disorder, ultimately they need to make the decision to get help themselves. Letting go of the control over a situation is one of the hardest things for family members to do, says Dr. Malat, but it's also very important for both parties.

Be a support as they navigate the system.
While you can't treat a loved one's depression, you can help them find resources and access to treatment. Finding mental health resources can be very discouraging, says Dr. Malat. Family members can help with that part of the puzzle, which allows them to contribute, but in a limited role. If your loved one is in crisis, take them to the emergency room. Suggest that they visit their family doctor and offer to go with them. Drive them to their appointment or offer to call a facility to check in on their waiting list. But be mindful of becoming overly involved in their treatment as it can slow things down and ultimately drag out the issue. Think of it like building a support team – you're all working on finding the resources and it helps you break out of that unhealthy isolation, but you're only creating the structure for the person to help themselves.

Get help – for yourself.
"When a family member is ill, in a way the whole family is ill," says Dr. Malat. A lot of families live in shame and isolation and try to manage a mentally ill family member alone. Reach out and find resources for yourself as well, he suggests. Whether that means finding a local Al-Anon group, talking to a community agency, or seeing your own family doctor, recognizing that you need your own support is very important. And if the situation is more serious and you're managing a family member with abusive behaviour, call for help. You still have a right to protect yourself, says Dr. Malat.

Don't give up hope.
Keep in mind that treatment is a process. "It can take a really long time before people reach for help themselves," says Dr. Malat. And once they do seek help it's not a straight line to wellness— it's a rollercoaster ride. Family members often get discouraged because the person gets a bit better and then relapses three months later. Educate yourself about the condition, focus on getting them help and then try and pull back a bit. "Mental illness is often chronic and people aren't just going to get better in one week and be all fixed. It doesn't work that way. People often get better and manage their conditions and are much less symptomatic," he says. "There's lots of room for hope."

Click here for more information on alternative treatments that may help your loved one.
 
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How to help a loved one with a mental health issue

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