What does it mean to have a mental health disorder? And what is it like to live with someone who is struggling with it?
When someone suffers from a mental illness it means that he or she has a condition that affects his or her thinking, feeling or mood. Common types of mental disorders include depression, anorexia, and anxiety disorder. Many times such disorders do not present themselves on the outside; the person appears to be healthy and seems like everyone else, yet they do not act or feel like everyone else. Although at times there is an identifiable physiological marker or a chemical imbalance that causes the mental disorder, many times there is not. Often, the individuals themselves do not fully understand why they feel or act the way they do. They do not understand why things make them more anxious than others, or why they have a hard time getting up or feeling motivated. Yet, their brain is directing them in a way that is detrimental to their wellbeing.
Some call mental disorders the “invisible illness” because there is not always a physiological marker that can be traced to causing the diagnosis. It is therefore easy to forget that there is an actual illness that is causing someone to think and act the way they do. If someone were to be diagnosed with cancer, for example, no one would ask that person: Why are you in so much pain? Why don’t you get up and do your work? Why are you hurting yourself? The cancer is an identifiable physical part of their body that shows that there is a problem and therefore justifies feeling empathy toward them.
On the other hand, the lack of a marker in mental illness in people suffering can cause a lack of understanding and a tremendous amount of frustration and anger from loved ones. Their family may see how much the individual with mental health illness suffers and makes others suffer, and yet, still, that individual does not seem to better his or her ways. It is hard for friends and family to accept that individuals suffering from mental illness do not have the ability to recover on their own.
When you try and help someone you love overcome a mental disorder, and you think there is something you can say or do to make him or her change, you run the risk of feeling frustrated, angry and guilty if your loved one doesn’t modify his or her behavior. Many family members endure this pain in silence. They might think that there is a stigma about having a mental health diagnosis and might avoid talking about it. Yet, family members play a very important role in the life of someone with mental health illness. Much of a person’s disability comes out in private and at home and requires a tremendous amount of support and patience from loved ones. Family members often carry the burden of helping the individual alone and do not always realize that they also might need help. To see your loved ones suffer over and over again because of the way they process events or the way they make unhealthy decisions for themselves can be draining and painful to watch.
Perhaps a way to resolve that feeling of disappointment is to stop trying to fix the problem on your own. Rather, step back and allow a mental healthcare professional to work with your family member to improve maladaptive behaviors and thoughts. As a family member of a person suffering from mental illness, you should concentrate on loving those with mental illness and focus on accepting them for who they are. Work with their challenges, but understand that they are not making poor decisions and acting the way they are because they want you or anyone else to suffer. They actually have a diagnosis that is inhibiting them from acting in a healthy manner. Your job is to love them and the healthcare professional’s job is to improve their functioning.
Having a mental health illness can be very debilitating; it can impede those suffering from achieving their goals. People with mental health illnesses do not lack the will to be healthy––they lack the ability. Their intention is not to hurt you, to disappoint you or to challenge your patience. As a family member, you suffer too. Sometimes it can be harder and more infuriating to watch someone make unhealthy decisions than to see them suffer from a physical ailment. Seeing your loved one live with a mental illness is hard. Do not feel that you need to carry that burden on your own. Get the professional help you need to become stronger and more able to support your loved ones.
Gali earned a master's from Columbia School of Social Work and a master's from Bank Street College of Education. Currently, Gali has a private practice in Englewood where she treats families, individuals and couples. Additionally, Gali works for Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Clifton-Passaic and supports Project Sarah, a program that works with victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Gali also consults for schools where she focuses on guiding teachers and administrators on how to aid children with behavioral challenges.