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How To Help A Family Member Cope With A Mental Illness Diagnosis

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The signs and symptoms may have persisted for years before a diagnosis of mental illness was made. There may have been many incorrect diagnosis’ and unresponsive treatment plans. But here you are, finally at what you hope is the correct diagnosis. Appointments are set up and medication is prescribed but what can you do as the family member to help?

To help better understand how I handled my husband being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I am going to relate a story to you. I see no difference in how I chose to handle these two situations.

My son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was ten. After the initial hospital stay and doctor appointments, my son and I were scheduled to see a psychiatrist.

After speaking to both of us, the pdoc asked my son to step out. He turned to me and asked “I have never in all my years had such a young patient be so well-adjusted to his diagnosis. What did you do?”

He relayed to me stories of terrified parents and children always crying and/or fighting their treatment plan. I didn’t realize I was such an enigma! My goal has always been to raise well-adjusted children no matter what obstacles they may have.

This in short is what I said. My son had never seen me cry or get upset about the diagnosis. Though I did regularly ball my eyes out in the shower. I explained to my son that there is still nothing he can’t do or achieve, even with diabetes.

The only difference, I explained, is that he must be prepared and think ahead just like packing for a vacation. He can still have a long, healthy life if he takes his diagnosis seriously and takes responsibility for monitoring himself. I never, ever looked at my son differently.

When my husband was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1, I handled it pretty much the same. As a result, my husband is very open and honest with his diagnosis. I see him as a role model and he has helped others open up about their own struggles with mental illness. I am happy to say that he is stable, medication compliant and takes full responsibility for his diagnosis and treatment. I am there for support. That is my job.

So, how can you help if someone in your family is diagnosed with a mental illness?

  • Do not let the diagnosis define the person.
  • Do not look or talk to them with pity or fear.
  • Do not be ashamed of them.
  • Do not take over and control them and their treatment plan.
  • Do not let them get away with everything just because of the diagnosis.
  • Let them know what your boundaries are. (See post on setting boundaries here)
  • Prepare for relapses. (See my video about how I manage mania here)
  • Help them realize that the diagnosis will help them live a better, happy life.
  • Go with them to doctor appointments.
  • Help them manage their meds.
  • Help them recognize changes in their moods.
  • Be prepared for changes in your relationship.
  • Inform other family/friends/people (with your family member’s consent) about the mental illness and what to expect.
  • Take every opportunity to fight stigma and educate others.
  • Love and support them.

And above all, have patience. The progress in the beginning may be slow, and at times, it may feel like you are going backwards. There will be lots of changes, in medications, in treatment plans and maybe even doctors. But stick with the process. You have to go through all that to find the right balance. Everyone is different so everyone needs a treatment plan that is customized to them.

Your newly diagnosed family member will soon face a lot of stigma out in the real world and many people will look at them differently. Let your home be filled with acceptance and support. When you project that you don’t feel any different about them, that they are not damaged goods or “crazy”, they will be more likely to accept the diagnosis themselves and be more on board in treatment compliance.

And if I could give you one more piece of valuable advice it is this: don’t ignore yourself. I strongly encourage you to go seek counselling yourself and to find support groups just for you. Even support people need support! Just like they tell you on the airplane, you need to help yourself first so that you are more capable of helping others.

If you have any more suggestions or would like to share how you help your newly diagnosed family member, please feel free to post them in comments.

Disclaimer: I am not a therapist or a doctor. This post is based solely on my personal experiences and should not be deemed as advice or counsel. Please seek appropriate medical attention from a licensed professional.

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