When a Family Member Has an Emotional Health Issue

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 Alexis Paskalides

By Alexis Paskalides, MSW, LCSW

When a friend or family member develops a serious emotional health condition, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Family members and caregivers often play a large role in helping and supporting the estimated 450 million people globally who experience emotional health conditions each year. They share many of the same thoughts and questions. For example,

  • why is my friend so reluctant to get help?
  • what can I do when my loved one doesn’t have access to mental health care?
  • how can I support and encourage someone recently hospitalized for an emotional health condition?

If you have a friend or family member who is showing signs of an emotional health issue or is reaching out for help, there are a number of ways you can offer support, including

  • finding out if the person is getting the care that he needs and wants—if not, connecting him to help
  • expressing concern and support
  • reminding the person that help is available and that emotional health problems can be treated
  • asking questions, listening to ideas, and being responsive when the topic of emotional health problems come up
  • providing reassurance of care
  • offering to help with everyday tasks
  • including the loved one in plans and continuing to extend invitations, even when they are rejected
  • educating others so they understand the facts about emotional health problems and do not discriminate
  • treating people with emotional health problems with respect, compassion, and empathy

If you decide to help care for someone with a serious emotional health issue, it’s important to understand that it can be emotionally and mentally challenging for caregivers. Prioritizing self-care can help you avoid burnout. Involving other family members and friends can also be helpful, as there can be strength in numbers. Another benefit of involving others is that individuals often handle challenges and obstacles differently, which can lead to a broader selection of solutions.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that involving a family member could do more harm than good. It can be damaging if a family member demands discipline for behaviors that cannot be controlled, denies that there is anything wrong, or insists upon an irrational course of action. Therefore, be selective about who gets involved and the roles they are allowed to play. In addition, be prepared for the possibility that some family members will have little interest in helping.

Health care professionals, if they have consent to speak with you, can provide helpful information, including local resources that may be available, such as support groups for caregivers. Participating in caregiver support groups, whether in person or online, can help you learn more about your loved one’s specific challenges and how other caregivers cope. Talking with other caregivers can be very rewarding because they can relate to your circumstances like nobody else can.

Additionally, you can educate yourself by reading reputable articles and books and checking out credible online resources. Online resources in the United States include National Alliance of Mental Illness, Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Mental Health America and American Psychological Association. In the United Kingdom, online resources include The Royal College of Psychiatrists, Mind, Carer’s Trust, Mental Health Foundation, and Rethink.

Unfortunately, people living with emotional health issues still experience stigma and misconceptions. While that can be a difficult reality, the fact is that people diagnosed today can expect better outcomes than ever before. Medications have improved, and new evidence-based psychotherapeutic interventions can have powerful and positive effects. There are many reasons to stay positive. One of the most important things you can do to support a loved one with a serious emotional health issue is to have hope.

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