By Jennifer McElligott
Having a loved one with a mental illness can be very difficult, to say the least.
Here are some tips to keep in mind, which may help.
-Practice self care. It is not selfish, but neces¬sary and something that we all deserve. The ‘oxygen mask on the plane’ example is a per¬fect illustration of the importance of self-care. If the oxygen level changes in the aircraft, an oxygen mask will drop down from the panel above you. The instructions indicate precisely that if there is a person beside you that re¬quires help to put on their oxygen mask, it is important that you put your oxygen mask on first before assisting the person next to you. This underlines the importance of taking care of yourself in order to have enough strength and energy to take care of your loved one who has a mental illness.
Another important element to remember is to seek help when needed. Taking care of yourself also means acknowledging your limi¬tations and knowing when to ask for outside assistance.
-Give your loved one as much autonomy as possible. Allow your loved one some space. This is not always an easy thing to do, but is necessary. The more you distance yourself from constant involvement and the more responsi¬bility someone with a mental illness assumes, the better. Distancing yourself (by a reason¬able amount) can allow your loved one to be¬come more independent. This independence may lead to them accomplishing things they would not have attempted otherwise.
-Do normal things. Though life may sometimes feel like it revolves around mental illness, it is im¬portant that the illness not be the central gov¬erning force. Try to gain a life beyond mental illness. Spend time with friends, develop inter¬ests and hobbies, go on outings and trips, etc.
-Avoid co-dependence. Co-dependence occurs when an individual lets him/herself be affected by the behaviour of others and who may become obsessed with controlling the behaviours of others. Often the individual may think they are helping others, by believing they are responsible, the only one that can help the other and perhaps “the savior” of the other. However, this can lead to an inability to manage one’s own life. While it is natural to want to take care of and help our loved one, there is a potential danger, depend¬ing on how involved we are. If the caregiver weakens or destroys their own boundaries in an effort to maintain the relationship, this may consequently drive the relationship into a rela¬tionship of co-dependence.
-Set boundaries. Personal boundaries are the limits we set in relationships that allow us to protect ourselves from be-ing manipulated by, or enmeshed with, emotionally needy others. Such bound¬aries come from having a good sense of our own self-worth and they make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of oth¬ers. Healthy intact boundaries are flex¬ible, they allow us to get close to others when it is appropriate and they help us to maintain our distance when we might be harmed by getting too close. It is im¬portant to balance our interpersonal re¬lationships, our personal objectives and our self-respect.
-Avoid transforming a crisis into an in¬surmountable problem. During a crisis, try to remain as calm as possible. When talking with your loved one, speak slow¬ly, firmly and clearly, using your normal voice. Avoid expressing irritation and anger and avoid shouting, threaten¬ing, arguing or standing over the person (it may be perceived as a threatening stance). Contact people who can help, such as your loved one’s doctor or men¬tal health team, crisis center, Friends for Mental Health and, if someone poses a danger to him/herself or others at the present moment, call 911. Put your safe¬ty first.
During a crisis, reassure yourself that the crisis will pass and try to talk to someone you trust or contact a help line. After the crisis is over, it is important to try and re¬duce your stress level. Schedule a bit of time for yourself to unwind and relax. Try to restore your usual routine as soon as possible.
-DeFOG your life. FOG stands for Fear, Obligation and Guilt. It is what we may feel and that which prevents us from acting. When someone asks us for some¬thing, we may want to set a limit and/or say no, but might not do so because we fear the consequences of refusing, feel obliged to help them or feel guilty if we do not help them. We may feel one or all three of these emotions at once. The use of FOG can feel like black¬mail. It is important to become aware when someone is “FOG¬ging” us. Try to set boundaries and stick to them when this occurs. It also may be helpful to try and find a win-win solution (a compromise) instead.
-Use assertive com¬munication. Especially during a conflict, as¬sertive communica¬tion is essential. It is important to appear assured and confi¬dent. This can be dem¬onstrated through non-verbal assertive¬ness, such as standing straight, maintaining eye contact, speak¬ing in a clear, steady, audible voice and speaking without hesi¬tation. When in conflict, try to find points of agreement and build from there. If appropriate, try to compromise and/or barter. It is also important to listen and to paraphrase what you’ve heard. By paraphrasing, you are stating what you’ve understood and are confirming that it is indeed what the other person was trying to express. This helps avoid any miscommunication. In the same way, it is important to express and de¬scribe the situation from your perspec¬tive, so that the other person may un¬derstand you as well.
Try to use “I” statements, especially when expressing your feelings. Saying “You are mean” comes across as ac¬cusing, which may lead to the other person becoming defensive. Saying “I feel hurt” is less accusing and since it is an “I” statement, it is harder to argue with. The other person cannot easily ar¬gue about how you feel, whereas they could argue about not ‘being mean’. Saying “and” instead of “but” also comes across as less confrontational. If someone asks you to do something and you do not want to do it, be careful if you choose to give an excuse. Some¬one can try to work around your excuse, but if you simply say “I don’t want to” it is much harder to find a loop hole.
-Accept change. Change is a part of life and is therefore inescapable. If we know and accept this, it may help us deal with future changes. In regards to the changes your loved one has un¬dergone, try to accept your loved one as he/she is and acknowledge their courage in dealing with their illness. When we accept what will never be, we give room for the good things that are possible.
-Set realistic goals. Keep things in per¬spective and try to be realistic about what can and cannot happen. Hav¬ing unrealistic expectations may cause your loved one a lot of stress. In regards to overwhelming circumstances, try breaking large tasks into smaller ones. Baby steps are valid too; moving in the right direction is what is important. Hav¬ing a hopeful and positive outlook can be very beneficial as well. Life is not perfect therefore nothing will ever be completely perfect, but concentrating on the positive aspects and thinking of the things you want to happen, rather than being fearful of the things you do not want to happen, can help improve your quality of life.
-Recognize the importance of self esteem. Believe in yourself, your capabilities and your instincts; you have already survived challenges in the past. Remember that self esteem can be seen as another mus¬cle that needs to be strengthened. We need to work out our self esteem, just like our other muscles, in order to maintain it and keep it strong.