3 Ways To Love Someone With Mental Illness—While Preserving Your Own Well-Being

January 15, 2021

A person of mine, A, has been unstable since my Grandmother passed away in 2014. But, if I’m being honest, the signs were always there. When we were kids, A. had no emotional regulation. My family and I treaded gingerly, mindful to not upset A.. In hindsight, we should have recognized a long time ago that something was wrong. But the stigma surrounding mental illness, while improving, still pervades. And so we always thought, “this is just A.”

In recent years past, A has bounced from relationship to relationship, home to home, and idea to idea. A has hurt theirself, gotten in trouble with the law, and spent time in jail. Sometimes when we speak, I can tell that it’s really A. I savor these conversations. But other times, A sounds defensive or manic. It is as though A is staring into something I cannot see.

It is hard loving someone who isn’t well. We blame ourselves and wonder what we could have done differently. We offer help, financially and emotionally, but if it isn’t on their own terms or at the right time they are not interested. One day A will announce a plan and the next that plan has changed, which makes being supportive difficult (if not impossible). A is an open wound my family and I cannot heal. A pain we carry with us every day. Sometimes the wound bleeds, shooting white hot pain through us and other times it is a mere, scabbing ache. But the wound remains because, well, our love persists.

That doesn’t mean, however, that showing A we love them doesn’t prove challenging at times. So if you love or care for someone who struggles with mental illness, consider these 3 ways to better love and support them:

Learn

If the person you care about has a formal diagnosis, consider setting aside a bit of time to learn about the particular illness. Make sure you are using a verified resource such as the DSM-5. If your person doesn’t have a formal diagnosis, you can still learn a lot from talking to them directly. After all, they know their own feelings best. Consider asking open-ended questions, such as, “How does it feel? What makes it worse? When do you feel good? etc.”

Be a silent model of self-care and wellness

I strive to avoid offering counsel to A. (or anyone) unless counsel is explicitly asked for.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t share details about our own lifestyles with others. I think the important thing is to be sure to frame it as your own. Maintaining your regular self-care habits while engaging with people who are suffering from mental illness can motivate them to take better care of themselves. If you live in the same area as your person, you could invite them to join you for some (COVID-19 safe, socially distant) self-care as well. Think yoga, meditation, DIY manicures, star gazing, hiking.. you get the idea. And research demonstrates how beneficial self-care is in treating illnesses.

Set healthy boundaries

I try to be there for A at all times. But that simply isn’t viable. I cannot help anyone if I’m not taking care of myself first. So, if A calls in the middle of the night, the call goes unanswered. (Sleep is not optional for me and my wellness routine)! My cell lives on silent mode, and having a silenced phone has helped me manage anxiety and strike a work/life balance. And if A calls during the day, I only answer if I am truly available. If I am busy, I send a text and let A know that I will get back to them and that I love them.

Loving someone who is mentally unwell is a (cliché) rollercoaster ride of emotion. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort. And I have found the more I love myself, the easier it is to love others.

Do you have any experience loving someone with mental illness?

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Photo: Anthony Tran via Unsplash

R. Coker
R. Coker is a legal professional and independent scholar. She enjoys spending time with her animal companions, reading, writing and exercising, especially yoga.

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