NAMI: Working together for strong support
Living with mental illness is challenging to the individual with the illness and those who provide support to them. When mental illness strikes, the whole being is affected including self, family, finances, housing, employment, spiritual and more. When first diagnosed with mental illness, the individual may not know what to do, who to turn to, or where to go for help toward recovery. Recovery is a life-long process and the beginning to achieve recovery can be overwhelming. With a strong support system, recovery from mental illness is easier and quicker for the individual and family.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) mental illness affects one in four individuals annually in the United States. An array of mental health services and supports must be in place to ensure recovery to those living with mental illness. Mental illnesses are biological disorders that disrupt a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. These cannot be overcome through will power and are not related to a person's character or intelligence. Mental illness can be treated but not cured. With a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports, between 70 and 90 percent of individuals with mental illnesses have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life. Support by family and friends is important. Often, it is family members who provide support to their loved one and they, too, may not know where to go, what to do, or who to turn to for help.
In order to be a good supporter, certain criteria need to be met, including: someone who cares and empathizes; someone who accepts the person with the diagnosis as they are and doesn't have him/her all figured out; someone who will listen and share; and someone who knows that unsolicited advice, criticism and judgment won't help and may even make matters worse.
A good supporter recognizes individuals living with mental illnesses have wants and needs. The wants include things like understanding, communication, listening, encouragement, love, concern, patience, availability and attention from family members. It is recognized some family members may be able to provide these wants while others cannot.
The needs list includes a friend or supporter that can be called on when the person with the illness needs or wants someone to talk to; companionship; someone to have a good time with; help in figuring things out and making decisions or someone to take over and provide safety while s/he can't take care of self.
Family members who are supporters have do's and don't's to follow also. On the DO list are: take good care of yourself; make sure you have plenty of support; listen but be realistic about the time you have available and be supportive whether or not the person you are supporting is able to take your advice.
The Don't list includes: try to rescue the individual with mental illness; do things that can be easily done by him/her; assume you know what is wanted or needed - ASK; avoid telling something that can't be handled; and allow yourself to be abused.
Stigma is the primary reason only 25 percent of those with a mental illness seek treatment. Stigma reflects a discriminatory attitude, disrespect, shame and even contempt. Self-stigma occurs after an individual hears others' statements about psychiatric disorders and the individual is robbed of hope. Without hope, recovery cannot take place. When working with loved ones, family members can provide support by educating others to stigma and its devastating effects. Stigma appears in behavior, language, attitude and tone of voice. Disrespectful language is terms such as "crazy," "lunatic," "wacko," "loony bin" and "slow or low-functioning". Some rules of thumb are not to focus on disability and focus on issues that affect the quality of life for everyone instead. Don't sensationalize a disability by using terms such as "afflicted with," "suffers from" or "victim of." Don't use psychiatric diagnoses as metaphors for others situations, e.g, a "schizophrenic situation." This is not only stigmatizing but inaccurate. DO put people first, not their disabilities; for example: "person with schizophrenia" rather than "schizophrenic."
To help those who live with mental illness and supporters, NAMI offers two programs at no charge. One is the Family-to-Family Education Program, a 12-week, two-hour-a-week program for family members, friends and professionals. This program gives insight into what it is like to live with mental illness, and it addresses diagnoses, medications and more. Second is the Peer-to-Peer Recovery Education Program for individuals 18 years and older living with mental illness. This is a 10-week, two-hour-a-week program. Emphasis is placed on relapse prevention and includes diagnoses, medications, coping skills and more. For more information, contact: Peggy Mangold, 704-640-8811.
Sarah Keller Boyd is a member of NAMI of Rowan