Caregiving for the Mentally Ill Adult

Anytime a family member is ill, the rest of the family usually takes on certain measures of consideration and support during the recovery process. If Mom is undergoing chemotherapy, for example, Dad and the kids might take over the chores, and everyone will try to keep a low volume while she’s resting. Similarly, if Uncle Alfred breaks his ankle, the family might rally, everyone taking turns to help him with grocery shopping or getting to and from work. 

When the family member in question suffers from a mental illness, it is equally important for loved ones to rally in support, but what that support should look like may not always be obvious. Below, we’ve gathered a few basic tips and ideas on caregiving for a mentally ill adult from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Practice acceptance

It’s important to accept your family member exactly as he is.  Mental illness cannot be wished away, and spending time comparing what was or what could have been to what is will only cause pain. Be realistic about your loved one’s limitations, but recognize his strengths as well. 

Stay educated

It can sometimes be difficult to remember that an illness is influencing your family member’s behavior. One of the best things you can do to remind yourself of that is to educate yourself on her mental health condition, the science behind it, the symptoms, and potential treatment options. Read up on blogs, magazine articles, in forums.  The more you know about your family member’s condition, the easier it’ll be for you to be supportive and manage your expectations. 

Practice clear communication

How you communicate with your loved one will make a big difference in how you are heard. Every person is different, and it’s important for you to listen carefully to your family member to determine his communication needs. For instance, if he has trouble with reality, you’ll need to keep it very simple and truthful. If he is insecure, you’ll need to express your acceptance of him. If he is preoccupied, you’ll need to get his attention first. When you want to be heard, how you speak is as important as how you say it. 

Set clear routines and appropriate expectations

Consistency and simplicity of structure are important components in a healing environment. Routines help to give everyone a sense of security and normalcy. Setting appropriate expectations for everyone will help to keep harmony within the home. You can have some hard boundaries, such as no violence and no street drugs or alcohol, as well as some more flexible goals to work toward. For example, you may want to list a couple of behaviors you’d like your family member to change. This won’t happen overnight, but you can measure progress. What works best for each family will be different, and finding the right systems may require some trial and error. 

Remember that support is not control

An adult with mental illness is still an adult, and she needs to be treated as such. While you may have some hard boundaries in place about violence or drugs and alcohol, you will also need to allow your family member to make some choices of her own.  You may think that she is choosing the wrong treatment plan or making some other choice that you don’t agree with, but supporting her does not mean controlling her. In issues where safety is not an immediate concern, try to step back and allow her some space to be an adult. 

Pay attention to everyone’s needs

Everyone in the family is important, not just the person with mental illness. It’s critical that everyone feels like a valued member of the family. This includes all caretakers, all children, everyone. It may require creativity to meet everyone’s needs, and you may not get it right every time, but the effort must be there. When one family member has a mental illness, it affects everyone, even those who may not show it.  

Seek help when needed

Support groups can be a wonderful resource when someone you love suffers from mental illness.  They can be a place to freely express yourself, to keep from going down the path of self-blame, and to discuss options you may not have considered.  Health care professionals can also be of great support to families.  

At Alvarado Parkway Institute in San Diego, we have a wide range of mental health services, both inpatient and outpatient, for those with mental illness. We encourage our patients to include family members in the treatment process, and our clinical team members provide support, education, and treatment to family members as well. 

If you’re interested in learning more about our programs and services, please give us a call: 619-465-4411.

Or if you or someone you care for is experiencing a psychiatric or addictive disorder crisis, our Call Center staff is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1-800-766-4274. 

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