Supporting Those We Love with Mental Illnesses

By John Lilies

Mental Health. Two words that have such varying degrees of meaning to each person we look at. For some people these are two words they don’t want to utter or think about in any way; two words that some people wish to deny. For others these are two words that devastate - words that carry with them life-changing moments and experiences not necessarily positive in their exchange. Two words that for some of us carry complete confusion - a deeply complex combination of sadness, hope, fear, success, hesitation, persistence, death and life.

Mental Health. Two words that mean something different to each person who has had any type of experience directly or indirectly with this intensely stigmatized issue.

Depression. Anxiety Disorders. Bi-Polar Disorder. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Schizophrenia. Post-Partum Depression. Psychosis. Borderline Personality Disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The list goes on.

Most of us have heard one or more of the above labels or diagnoses. Each one brings with it life complications and stressors, medications and therapies, lost hours, lost friends, lost family members, new concerns, new fears, new people, new lives. New Normal. Normal. How many of us truly feel normal? How many of us suddenly feel abnormal when diagnosed with a mental illness or learn of a close friend or family member who has been diagnosed? What does this mean? What do we do? What happens next?

Questions, more questions and rarely the answers we need or want. There is another hidden side to this often-unseen issue. What about those of us who, while maybe we’ve had our own direct situations with mental illness, are predominately the supports for those around us who struggle daily and possibly intensely with moderate-to-severe mental illnesses and all that goes along for that ride? What is that story like?

I have lived my life surrounded by mental illness. Family members and friends lost to suicide through Post-Partum Psychosis, severe Depression and any other diagnosis unknown to those of us outside the experience. I was 10 years old when suicide entered my life. In high school it struck again. At 20 years old while on the commuter train to my morning class at college, someone felt so completely helpless with no hopeful option for life that jumping in front of the train was the only answer and in less than a second it was all over. There have been others in my life lost to suicide and I sincerely hope there won’t be more in the future but I understand the realities of this life.

It is hard being the observer. Watching your loved ones ache and struggle to be okay, to move through their illnesses and attempt to lead great lives can be excruciating. More often than not, we the supporters – the friends and family – are mostly helpless. We can listen. We can be a strong shoulder. We can offer advice when it’s wanted. We can visit in the hospital when things have become so hard and so serious that hospitals are required. We can call the ambulance when the really scary things happen. We can show up. We can be present. We cannot fix.

The stress of being the supporter is often enormous and we rarely want our loved ones to know how hard this can be because we never want them to think of themselves as burdens. We don’t see it as a burden. It’s a part of life and we love regardless of what illnesses occur. Mental illness is the unseen. Society doesn’t acknowledge mental illness the way other diseases are accepted and this transcends to the caregiver.

We rarely ask for support for ourselves and it is not often that help is offered. It’s hard enough for the person diagnosed with a mental illness to get the required assistance so what is available for the caregiver, the supporter? How do we navigate the rollercoaster for ourselves?

I wish I had the answers but I don’t. What I do know is that it is important to build our own support networks and be honest about how we are feeling. We need to ask for help and we need to accept it. It is very hard to say the words “I need help” but those are often the most important words. There are community supports. There are helplines. There are online resources. There are doctors. Yes... doctors. Supporters often find themselves experiencing their own health challenges and when we watch our loved ones struggle with mental illnesses we must pay very close attention to our own mental health. Problems can be very sneaky and can creep up on us without warning.

Being a caregiver – a supporter - is complicated and important. We are important. We must be strong and that means taking care of ourselves. We need to stay true to ourselves and while we often think we are, more often than not we are giving up our own care to be there for our loved ones. Please take care of yourself and please ask for help. Mental illness can strike the caregiver as easily as those for whom we are caring. Pay attention to yourself, research the assistance available in your community and stay connected. Don’t allow yourself to become lost in the stories of the people you love that are struggling to survive their own troubles. They need you and you need yourself so be patient with yourself; be kind to yourself and seek out your own supports because you do need them.

Take care out there…


Some resources you can access as a starting point:

Canadian Mental Health Association

Canadian Mental Health Association – Support for Families and Caregivers

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

CCAC Healthline – a link to community resources

Caregiver Exchange

A really great video to watch and use to reflect


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