When Someone You Love Has a Mental Disorder
IT STARTED as a typical weekday morning for the Johnsons.a The family of four was up and dressed for the day’s activities. Gail reminded her 14-year-old son, Matt, that it was past time to catch the school bus. What followed was completely unexpected. Within half an hour, Matt spray-painted a bedroom wall, tried to set fire to the garage, and attempted to hang himself in the attic.
Gail and her husband, Frank, followed the ambulance that took Matt away, desperately trying to make sense of what had just occurred. Sadly, though, this was just the beginning. Many psychotic episodes followed, plunging Matt into the dark world of mental illness. His five-year period of anguish included several suicide attempts, two arrests, placement in seven psychiatric facilities, and countless sessions with mental-health professionals. Confused friends and relatives were often at a loss for what to say or do.
It is estimated that 1 in 4 people worldwide will be afflicted with a mental illness at some point in their life. Considering this staggering statistic, chances are you have a parent, child, sibling, or friend with some form of brain disorder.b What can you do if someone you love has such a condition?
● Recognize symptoms. The presence of a mental disorder may not be immediately diagnosed. Friends and family members might attribute the symptoms to hormonal changes, physical ailments, personality weaknesses, or the result of difficult circumstances. Matt’s mother had seen some prior signs of trouble in Matt, but his parents thought that his moodiness was part of an adolescent phase that would soon pass. However, significant changes in sleep, diet, or behavior may indicate something more serious. An examination by a professional can lead to effective treatment and improved quality of life for your loved one.
● Become informed. People with mental disorders usually have limited capacity to research their own condition. Hence, the information you gather from current and reliable sources can help you to understand what your loved one is going through. It can also help you to talk openly and knowledgeably with others. Gail, for instance, gave Matt’s grandparents medical pamphlets that helped them feel more informed and involved.
● Pursue treatment. Despite the long-term nature of some mental disorders, with appropriate treatment many sufferers can have stable, productive lives. Unfortunately, many languish for years without getting help. Just as a serious heart condition requires a heart specialist, mental illness needs the attention of those who know how to treat such conditions. Psychiatrists, for example, can prescribe medicine that when taken consistently can help control mood, ease anxiety, and straighten out distorted thinking patterns.c
● Encourage the sufferer to seek help. Those with mental disorders may not realize that they need help. You might suggest that the sufferer see a particular doctor, read some useful articles, or have a conversation with someone who has successfully managed a similar disorder. It may be that your loved one is not receptive to your advice. But by all means intervene if someone in your care is at risk of harming himself or others.
● Avoid placing blame. Scientists have not yet been able to sort out the complex interaction of genetic, environmental, and social factors that contribute to abnormal brain function. The combination of factors that can contribute to a mental disorder includes brain injury, substance abuse, environmental stressors, biochemical imbalances, and inherited predispositions. It does little good to accuse individuals of what you think they might have done to contribute to an illness. You will want to direct your energies to fostering support and giving encouragement.
● Have realistic expectations. If you expect more from a sufferer than he or she can give, it can be disheartening. Conversely, overemphasizing the sufferer’s limitations can promote a sense of helplessness in that one. So keep your expectations realistic. Of course, wrong acts should not be tolerated. Like anyone, those with mental disorders can learn from the consequences of their actions. Violent behavior may necessitate legal action or certain restrictions for the protection of the individual or others.
● Stay connected. Communication is vital, even though at times it may seem that your comments are misconstrued. The responses of someone with a mental disorder can be unpredictable, and his or her emotions may seem inappropriate to the situation at hand. Nevertheless, finding fault with the sufferer’s remarks will only heap guilt on top of depression. When words fail, sit quietly and listen. Acknowledge feelings and thoughts without condemning. Strive to remain calm. You and your loved one will benefit if you simply and consistently show that you care. This was true for Matt. A few years later, he expressed his appreciation for those whom he said were “helping me when I didn’t want help.”
● Consider the needs of other family members. When a family must focus on the one in crisis, other members can be neglected. For a time, Matt’s sister, Amy, felt that she “lived in the shadow of his illness.” She minimized her own accomplishments so as not to divert attention to herself. Meanwhile, it seemed that her parents wanted her to achieve more, as if to compensate for her brother’s shortcomings. Some neglected siblings in this situation attempt to command attention by causing trouble. Families in crisis need help to manage competing needs. For example, when the Johnson family was consumed by Matt’s problems, friends in the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses helped Amy by giving her extra attention.
● Promote good mental-health practices. A comprehensive plan to improve mental well-being should include attention to diet, exercise, sleep, and social activities. Simple activities with small groups of friends are usually less intimidating. Also, remember that alcohol can exacerbate symptoms and interfere with medications. The Johnson family now tries to maintain a routine of mental hygiene that is beneficial for everyone but especially for their son.
● Take care of yourself. The stress that comes with caring for someone with a mental disorder can threaten your own well-being. It is essential, therefore, that you pay attention to your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. The Johnson family are Jehovah’s Witnesses. Gail feels that her faith greatly helped her to cope with the family crisis. “Christian meetings were stress relievers,” she says, “a time to set aside immediate worries and focus on bigger issues and the ultimate hope. Countless times, I prayed desperately for relief, and invariably some change would occur to ease the pain. With Jehovah God’s help, I had peace of mind that belied our circumstance.”
Matt is now a young adult and has a fresh outlook on life. “I feel that I am a better person for what I went through,” he says. Matt’s sister, Amy, feels that the experience has benefited her as well. “I am less critical of others,” she says. “You never know what underlying circumstances may afflict someone. Only Jehovah God knows.”
If someone you love has a mental disorder, always remember that a listening ear, a helping hand, and an open mind can help that one to survive—and even to thrive.
a Names have been changed.
b Some use the term “brain disorder,” as it carries little stigma and readily implies a neurobiological cause.
c Potential benefits should be considered along with possible side effects. Awake! does not endorse any particular medical treatment. Christians should be sure that any treatment they pursue does not conflict with Bible principles.
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Some Warning Signs of Mental Disorders
If someone you love has any of the following symptoms, he or she may need to consult a medical or mental-health professional:
• Prolonged sadness or irritability
• Social withdrawal
• Extreme emotional highs and lows
• Excessive anger
• Violent behavior
• Substance abuse
• Excessive fears, worries, and anxieties
• Abnormal fear of weight gain
• Significant change in eating or sleeping habits
• Persistent nightmares
• Confused thinking
• Delusions or hallucinations
• Thoughts of death or suicide
• Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
• Denial of obvious problems
• Numerous unexplained physical ailments
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When words fail, sit quietly and listen to the sufferer