According to the National Alliance for the Mentally ill, or NAMI, 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental illnesses. Many of those who suffer from mental illnesses also deal with discrimination, prejudice, ridicule and pity. According to NAMI, only 45 percent of Americans believe that those who suffer from mental illnesses can be functional and successful in basic living skills like working and caring for themselves. It is truly sad that those who suffer from mental issues must also deal with such negative attitudes, when it is true that most sufferers, with treatment, can live a normal and very functional life.
The key to successful recovery is often the support and attitudes of the family and friends of those who suffer from the illness. With the prevalence of mental illness in our society, it is imperative that family and friends become the source of this support, since society still so often embraces negative attitudes toward the mentally ill.
Dealing With Mental Illness
Educate yourself about the illness from which your loved one suffers. Most of society has only a vague notion of what mental illness is, and knows only what is shown on TV as the definition of any specific disorder. Many websites and organizations offer accurate and helpful information on specific mental illnesses. Friends and family should seek out organizations like NAMI and FamilyDoctor.org online to help them understand and cope with a loved one's illness (see Resources).
Remember that support does not mean acceptance. Friends can support a loved one while still calling that person accountable for his behavior. Many mental illnesses are characterized by strange and difficult behaviors. A family can hold a sufferer accountable for taking meds and changing behaviors while still being supportive.
Keep in mind that the feelings of a mental;y ill person are just as real as the feelings of a non-ill person. Many people reduce the feelings of the mentally ill to their illness or their symptoms. Often, this is not the case. Sometimes, a feeling is justified, and listening to the sufferer is as important as listening to someone who suffers from a physical disease.
Acknowledge that keeping the lines of communication open is paramount to supporting someone with a mental illness. Communicate with the person, care providers and other family members so a community of support can be created for those who need help. Remember that communication is about talking to the person, not just about him. Each person will articulate his own individual needs if invited to. Speak openly and optimistically about the illness and the person's potential for recovery.
Realize that recovery is possible, but also highly individual. It is not a straightforward, linear process, but rather is often a back-and-forth experience entailing big steps forward and small relapses. Be patient and non-judgmental, and above all, do not attempt to rush the recovery process. Be supportive wherever the patient is at the moment.
- The goal of recovery is for the person to begin to live a life that is worth living. This requires that the illness not be the foremost part of her life. Family and friends need to not define the person by the illness, but rather recognize the illness as merely a part of the person.
- In addition, part of being supportive is knowing when the person needs intervention, even when he does not recognize that need. Do not be afraid to call providers for information if you feel the person is moving in a downward spiral, and don't be afraid to confront the person if necessary.
Kathy Schlossmacher is a former social worker and teacher. She holds a B.A. in psychology and social work and a master's in theology. She has done extensive personal research into the areas of evolution, social Darwinism and evolutionary psychology. Schlossmacher resides in Brooklyn, N.Y.