Mental illness is not easy for anyone. For the person who is mentally ill, it can be frustrating because their thoughts, feelings, coping strategies, and the way they view life in general may seem normal to them, because it’s all they have ever known. However, for their support system and particularly those who share a living space with those struggling with mental health, it can be equally frustrating because we do not live in the same reality; we often watch helplessly while they spiral downward into an unending abyss. Many who struggle with mental health will never access treatment, while the support system has little choice but to watch the destruction of their loved one.
As someone who has lived in this reality as supporter, I know all too well the damage this causes. This is a multifaceted issue – it is extremely painful to watch someone self destruct, which can also cause mental health issues for the supporter such as anxiety and even depression, compounding the mental instability of the family. In the case of severe mental illness there can be issues of abuse including physical, emotional, psychological, and financial. Previously formed bonds can be broken due to theft, dishonesty, and manipulation. In general, a historically happy home can begin to feel unsafe very quickly.
For those supporting mental illness it is important to build a support network for the supporters as well. Safety plans should be put in place, including phone numbers to call, and safe houses for the family to go to, should things go further south. Weekly communications with mental health professionals for all involved is highly recommended. Additionally, decisions may have to be made regarding whether the mentally ill person can continue living in the home, or if other arrangements need to be made. This can be very difficult, as this decision can potentially invoke feelings of guilt, but it is important to understand this may be a necessary protection for the family.
It is important to understand that recovery is not only for the mentally ill person; recovery is a process that is also necessary for those in the supporting role. For those in this situation, self-care is extremely important. Taking care to ensure that we are taking care of ourselves during this difficult process may include distraction techniques, taking breaks from the situation when necessary, checking in with yourself to see how you are doing, and maintaining connections with friends, family, and mental health professionals are all positive things that can help support the support system.
It is also really important to know that sometimes there is nothing that can be done to help, and being okay with that can be the most difficult realization of all. We love them, and we want them to be okay, but we can’t always make that happen. We can only go so far in our support; we cannot fix it for them. Walking away can be extremely painful, but it is sometimes necessary in order to protect the rest of the family. Maybe many of us would like to think we would see mental illness coming a mile away, but it isn’t always evident in the beginning. The decision to support or not support is a very personal thing, and many angles need to be taken into consideration. While it is easy to say “of course you should support them” sometimes it is just not that easy.
My advice? Don’t be hard on yourself if you decide you are unable to be supportive. Place more weight on what you need, and not so much on other peoples’ perceptions or criticisms, because these are irrelevant. Take care of yourself, and ensure your family’s safety, whatever that means. Mental illness is never an easy thing to live with, not for the person dealing with it, and not for the support system. Remember, you are not the villain in this story.