Coping with a Family Member with Mental Illness

Having a family member with a mental illness can be incredibly challenging. Despite your best efforts, you may feel that you are unable to have a healthy relationship with your loved one. Crises, irrational behavior, conflict, and burnout continually test your ability to be emotionally available to them. At Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Los Angeles, we have psychologists skilled in helping family members rebuild relationships with mentally ill loved ones.

Therapy for the family member of someone with mental illness usually involves some of the following treatment targets:

Learning to Navigate: The ups and downs of psychological instability can be very difficult to handle. It may seem like some days your family member is getting stronger, able to take adversity in stride, and other days, so fragile as to fall apart at the slightest incident. Learning how to skillfully roll with whatever your loved one is experiencing while helping to move them toward recovery is a vitally important skill, both for you and your loved one. Developing these skills involves learning how behavior change occurs, re-setting expectations to maximize recovery, and learning to identify and address your family member’s triggers.

Improving Relationships While Setting Limits: It can be hard to maintain a relationship with someone who struggles with mental illness. Often their illness causes them to act in frightening or hurtful ways, and we lose motivation to stick with them through these very hard times. There are proven strategies that can help salvage these relationships AND help you set limits with your loved one so your relationship does not succumb to your burnout. By pairing validation strategies with assertive positive limit setting, you can help your loved one learn how to be in a loving, rewarding relationship with you.

Managing Crises: Crises can be very stressful episodes for family members, as most people don’t know what to do, and the stakes can feel very high. Effective crisis management is thus a very important skill for those close to people with mental illness. Learning effective crisis management strategies involves learning and practicing emotion regulation skills, practicing empathic listening, and helping your loved one identify concrete problem solving strategies. If one of these components is missing, the crisis often escalates, causing you to feel even more out of control of the situation. Additional strategies such as orienting other family members about what to do in a crisis, and collaborating with mental health professionals can also be quite useful. When used in actual crises with mentally ill family members, these skills can help reduce the frequency and intensity of future crises by way of modeling effective crisis management. 

Helping a Family Member Get Help: Unfortunately, the mental health system in the United States can be very difficult to navigate. Options abound, and without knowing what to watch out for and what questions to ask, many family members try treatment after treatment without success, wasting a great deal of time and money in the process. The unfortunate reality is that there are many treatment centers that do not offer evidence-based practices, meaning mental health techniques validated by science. This is the case despite very clear scientific data about what works and what does not. Many mental health professionals are poorly trained, practicing outside of their area of expertise, or are using treatments that have no basis in psychotherapy research. We can help direct you to the top treatment providers in the field so your loved one can get the help he/she needs.

Support for the Supporter: Coping with a loved one with mental illness can be emotionally painful even in the best of times. Many people find they are so emotionally depleted by taking care of their loved one, that they no longer have anything to give, and fall into depression. One of the most important components of this treatment is rebuilding your own emotional reserves, and helping you learn to actively cope with such a challenging relationship.