Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What happens when a friend is diagnosed with mental illness? Guest Peer Leader Blog Post By Hannah Davis

Hannah Davis is the new Peer Outreach Coalition Intern. Hannah is studying Psychology at Sonoma State University. Her guest blogs will be featured weekly. Welcome, Hannah!

Many people wonder what it is like to have a mental disorder and how that changes a person’s life. While this is important, I am more interested in the many people who know a friend or family member that’s diagnosed and are entering the unknown territory of caregiver. According to the National Institute of Mental Health there are 26.2% of people aged 18 and over who “suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.” Seeing as one in four adults have mental disorders, the chances of knowing someone who is affected is a likely possibility. Because of these statistics, NAMI California, a group dedicated to educating the public about mental illness, lays out several of the typical feelings those helping mentally ill family members go through and ways to cope with this challenge.

There tends to be seven common emotions due to the added burden of caring for a mentally ill person. These emotions are guilt, embarrassment, confusion, anger, resentment, fear, and frustration. When I imagine the challenge of caring for someone who is mentally ill I associate with these emotions, all of which aren’t positive. If I feel this way by simply picturing these hardships then how much more stressful must it be for those who don’t imagine these situations, but are in them?

Guilt manifests because people blame themselves for what has happened and believe that somehow they could have taken control of the situation and stopped the mental illness from developing. Social stigmas about the mentally ill can cause embarrassment while confusion occurs when people have a hard time accepting that their loved one is mentally ill, what caused the disorder, and its impact on the affected individual. When family members think a patient isn’t really sick, yet merely looking for attention or excuses, they exhibit anger towards the ill individual. Resentment is where people feel pressured and burdened while caring for their family member. The people who normally feel this way are primary care givers that are closest to the mentally ill. Another normal response is fear that the family member will also be likely to get the illness. They may wonder if they are next. And lastly, the feelings of frustration occurs when caretakers feel they are unable to properly assist their loved one and therefore not helping them get better, which can also increase feelings of guilt. None of these negative feelings are helpful to any individual involved in the situation and should be change to a more positive outlook so there are no hard feelings between both parties involved.

In my opinion, it is vital that we try to get into the mindset of those in such a difficult position so we can understand what they are going through and learn how to help them. Thankfully there are ways that we can assist those who may feel burdened by caring for a friend or family member. They face an enormous challenge that includes little thanks for the help they provide, emotional heartbreak watching a loved one suffer, lots of time spent helping the mentally ill individual, and the rebellion against their help that they are likely to run into. This challenging time is when we as friends need to offer a helping hand; trying to care for someone shouldn’t be one person’s job.

Caregivers should try to reach out to others for emotional support, which can be as simple as talking about what is going on and getting feedback from others about treatment and behavioral issues. By discussing their concerns, fears, and thoughts people can create realistic expectations of recovery and maintain an objective perspective. Getting a break from care giving can reduce stress, and the use humor can help with the hardships of caring for those who can make the work difficult and depressing. Next time your friend needs to talk or asks for help, seriously think about the responsibility they are undergoing by caring for their mentally ill individual and ask yourself if you would want help and support. If the answer is yes, then do whatever you can to help to reduce that person’s burden.

As NAMI California says, “it is important to remember that mental illness is just that, an illness of the brain” and that “wrestling with the intricacies of mental health disorders is no easy feat.” It is important for those dealing with family members or friends afflicted with mental disorders to try to understand their feelings towards the ill person and how to change them to positive emotions, as well as know what resources are available during their struggle to help their mentally ill companion. Having a close circle of friends they can count on is also extremely helpful.

Remember that one day you could be in this position. Wouldn’t you want help and loving support during these troubling times?

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