This essay is part of a series during Mental Health Awareness Month. You can learn more about Mental Health Awareness Month, including helpful resources, here.
- If you are acting as a caregiver for someone facing a mental health condition, you are making a HUGE difference. By serving as a caregiver you are providing a connection that reassures your person that recovery is possible.
- Taking care of your own health and wellness is a top priority. Staying on top of your own health ensures that you have the strength to consistently support your loved one.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent resource for mental health caregivers. For clear information on how to be a strong and effective supporter, visit their website.
For the last ten years or so, I have been the primary caregiver of someone with mental health condition that had developed into a crisis resulting in more than a month of inpatient care. It was a surprise, if not a shock. If there was any choice to be made, it was to do whatever I could to protect my person, possibly from themselves, and from any risk of medical neglect in an effort to give them the best chance at recovery. This has required a great deal of learning and patience, which, for me, do not always go together.
It is hard work to serve as a guide for someone on their mental health recovery journey. Most people are not trained for what it takes to be on guard for a friend or loved one struggling to control their emotions, thoughts, and possibly actions. I certainly wasn’t, but I understood that I needed to learn a lot.
Its not impossible. We can help the people we love.
If this is familiar to you, it is especially important to know that you are far from alone.
Non-professional caregivers—family members, friends—are important links in a person’s care network. In fact, there are 60 million Americans providing unpaid care to a family member, friend, or neighbor who has a physical or mental illness.
Whether you are new to caregiving or have lots of experience under your belt, here are some important tips to keep in mind so you can care for your loved one without sacrificing yourself:
1. Keep an eye on your own health and wellness (physical and mental).
For you to successfully help someone with their mental health recovery, you must keep your own mental and physical health as your top priority. Do not miss your own doctor, dentist, or counseling appointments. Taking proper care of yourself is not selfish, it is a necessary part of being fully available to the person you are supporting.
Staying on top of your own health ensures you have strength to share with the person you are supporting and allows you to serve as a positive model of wellness for your family member. You can read more about self-care here.
NAMI has additional information about taking care of yourself while caregiving here.
Do not miss your own doctor, dentist, or counseling appointments. Taking proper care of yourself is not selfish.
2. Try not to let life revolve around your family member’s mental health condition.
Doing what you can to maintain a regular schedule at home provides much-needed structure. It’s also an opportunity for everyone to learn how life will go on. This does not ignore or diminish your loved one’s diagnosis; it will actually reinforce that they are more than their illness and that they can live a normal life with their condition.
More information about maintaining a healthy relationship with your loved one is provided by NAMI here.
3. Be mindful of communication.
There are times when it can be difficult and frustrating to relate to someone who has a mental illness, but there are strategies you can use to improve your communication with them. Use direct, simple and clear language. Depending on their state of mind, your loved one may not be able to pick up on subtle hints or social cues. Be honest and refrain from judgement as much as possible.
You may not always understand exactly what someone struggling with a mental crisis needs, but you can listen, and that helps. Saying out loud that you recognize that they feel bad helps more than you might think. Spoken encouragement can reduce stress levels. Keep it simple and honest. “I’m sorry you feel bad and I want to help.” “It isn’t your fault.”
Read more about clear communication here.
Saying out loud that you recognize that they feel bad helps more than you might think
4. Have a plan for setbacks and crisis.
Even with everyone on the team working hard for improvement, setbacks can occur. Knowing the signs that herald a decline in mental health can help head off a crisis. Caregivers may notice changes in behavior sooner than anyone, including the patient. Talk in advance with them about how you will respond if troubling symptoms appear. This will help the both of you to understand when additional support is needed to avoid a worsening situation.
Thinking positively is important, but it is not unusual for a person struggling with their mental health to have a crisis. It is important to have a plan to address a possible crisis. Again, include your family member in the planning as much as possible. Know who you may need to call and what may need to happen and share this with your family member and others close to that person.
NAMI shares more information about how to prepare for a crisis here.
5. Your involvement in treatment, when appropriate, will directly support your loved one’s recovery.
The support that you provide to your loved one is critical for their recovery. Ultimately your loved one is responsible for their own mental health, and you are not expected to figure out how to “fix” things. You do play a very important role in furthering recovery by helping to navigate the health care system.
You may need to remind them, transport them, and potentially join them at appointments. Your observations and descriptions of symptoms, in person or in writing, can be incredibly helpful to the doctor treating your loved one. The more clearly symptoms can be described, the better the chance of proper diagnosis and treatment.
Mental health treatment takes time, and usually requires some trial and error. Setbacks will occur and will be frustrating, but are part of the process of finding the best balance of medicine and therapy.
When times are tough and you feel overwhelmed, remember: you as a caregiver are making a HUGE difference. By serving as a caregiver you are providing a connection that reassures your person that recovery is possible.
“Don’t give up. A person with a mental health condition benefits enormously from having social support. Remind your family member that you’re there to help and you’re not giving up. When setbacks occur with one treatment strategy, look for alternative strategies. Try something new, and encourage your family member not to give up. A good life is possible.” Quoted from NAMI, Supporting Recovery.
You’ll notice that many of the links above are to the National Alliance on Mental Illness website. Please visit and make use of this resource. It is an impressive collection of clear information on how to be a strong and effective supporter of your friend or family member: https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Family-Members-and-Caregivers