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How Do I Help My Family Member with Mental Illness?

Knowing how to help a family member with mental illness requires knowledge about the mental illness, the mental health system, and insight into your family member’s personal situation.

Last night, I received another e-mail cry for help from a reader.

“I began reading “Ben Behind his Voices” last night and have barely put it down. Our son seems to be following Ben’s track. We don’t know what to do. Any suggestions?”

I wish I had all the answers.

Why A Memoir About Mental Illness?

I wrote Ben Behind His Voices for many reasons. One of my goals was to help people with the answer to the big question, “How do I help my family member with mental illness?” Many are going through the stages of discovering and treating mental illness in a loved one and I wanted to help them not feel quite so alone. So I am always thrilled to hear that reading our story helps.  The mental health blogs here on HealthyPlace serve the same purpose.

HealthyPlace also has terrific articles that offer practical advice. Start at the HealthyPlace Homepage and click or search away. And make sure to check out these mental health information articles.

Memoirs serve a purpose. They certainly continue to help me, as they have in the past, as it is human nature to respond to stories and retain the experience. Still, I have no magic formula for success. I can only share what has worked for us, and encourage others to do the same.

So, when a reader asks for suggestions as to what to do when “a loved one won’t take meds” or “the psychiatrist keeps blaming our parenting” or “I don’t understand the mental health system” – I offer up my perspective, but for actions to take, I refer them to the resources of experts. I know my son, but I don’t know the system the way others do.

Mental Health Book Resources for Families

These mental health books are invaluable when it comes to providing insight into how to help a family member with mental illness.

Buy Defying Mental IllnessDefying Mental Illness. If you’ve been looking for one book that contains well-organized answers to these and many more questions, for both people diagnosed with mental illness and for those who want to be a part of recovery, then this is for you. Authors Paul Komarek and Andrea Schroer pool their expertise as professionals who have navigated these waters to create a wonderful resource for families looking for concrete, accessible information. They state, in the introduction, that the goal was to write “a book that is not too technical, and suitable for community outreach work.” This they have accomplished – and more.

Buy the Family Guide to Mental Health CareThe Family Guide to Mental Health Care. This is a brand new book written by Lloyd I. Sederer, MD, with a foreword by Glenn Close (yes, the actress, also family member and founder of BringChange2Mind).  According to the book description, “In this book, families can find the answers to their most urgent questions. What medications are helpful and are some as dangerous as I think? Is there a way to navigate privacy laws so I can discuss my adult daughter’s treatment with her doctor? Is my teenager experiencing typical adolescent distress or an illness? From understanding depression, bipolar illness and anxiety to eating and traumatic disorders, schizophrenia, and much more, readers will learn what to do and how to help.”  I have read the book and agree.

Buy When Someone You Love Has A Mental IllnessWhen Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness: A Handbook for Family, Friends, and Caregivers, by Rebecca Woolis (New York: Tarcher, 1992).  Once again, a practical and well-laid-out guide with easy-to-read chapter guideposts, from understanding treatments and the course of mental illness to dealing with housing, jobs, and stigma; excellent appendix about medications, and resource directory.

Buy How To Live With A Mentally Ill PersonHow to Live with a Mentally Ill Person: A Handbook of Day-to-Day Strategies, by Adamec, Christine Adamec (New York: Wiley, 1996).  This book is exactly what the subtitle says it is—it is full of practical suggestions, from how to recognize symptoms to what to do to plan for your relative’s future; very empowering and positive in tone, while extremely realistic.

Buy I Am Not Sick, I Don't Need Help!I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help! How to Help Someone with Mental Illness Accept Treatment (Peconic, NY: Vida Press, 2007). Author Xavier Amador is a psychologist and also a sibling whose older brother suffered from schizophrenia. Want to understand why your relative denies his illness? Want a plan to deal with medication noncompliance? This is a great book that combines science and personal experience.

You can find additional help from the mental health books listed in the HealthyPlace.com Bookstore.

8 thoughts on “How Do I Help My Family Member with Mental Illness?”

  1. i believe i have a mental illness but my son is not being supportive he will barely talk to me. i have never harmed anyone . but have made some bad mistakes financially but not broken any laws. scared to go on any medication.

  2. You can start by listening. Listen with an open heart and an open mind. That means not being judgemental. That means not telling them what they should or should not do. That means trying to understand where they are emotionally: to understand what their world is like: not the one you live in: the one they live in. Ask them probing questions like what is troubling you? What do you want? What do you need? How can you help? Its OK to make suggestions but it is not OK to give orders, instructions, or ultimatums. And if you don’t know what the difference is then find out – if you really want to help.

  3. If there is one family member with mental health issues, then there are others, It keeps growing in the the family unless people start to admit to it.There is so much stigma attached to mental illness and every one is so afraid. It is what it it is , we need to quit being afraid of it, admit if we need help and support each other , there is help out there , though you can not always find the right help , keep looking.

  4. Having a family member with mental illness exhibits dread and hard life experience, as well. Thereafter, person with mental problems is very infecting to others in emotional aspect, that render more the engagement on helping the family member afflict from mental disorder. On the other hand, there are numerous psycho-social and sociocultural impediments that doing help by halves. Against these and others obstacles on managing the mental illness of family member, it should undertaking some interpersonal interventions, in order to persuade respective member to accept oneself illness and to take psychiatric medication as prerequisite conditions on successful psychiatric treatment. As to belongs to first goal, it ought to know that mental illnesses are disorder of the brain as organ of our mind, alike others diseases. It is important to know that psychiatric disorder are curable as others somatic illnesses, by appropriate psychiatric treatment and management. At least, I think it ought to deal with this family member in normal and spontaneous manner, without any specific prejudice and frightening as well. Crucial difference of mentally ill person is the necessity to take psychiatric medication, nothing more.

  5. Randye,

    Thanks for this great list. I would have given pretty much anything to have had ANY kind of guidance like this when I needed it. One of the greatest gifts we can give to those who are now in the spot we were in: do our best to point them in a helpful direction, and let them know they are not alone.

    There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all answer, and there are no guarantees. But there is also no reason for us to not offer even the tiniest bit of help, knowledge, or encouragement if it is within our power to give it.

    Well done.

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