Mental Health

4 Keys for Helping Someone With a Mental Illness

Someone you care about has a mental illness – what do you do? The temptation is to try to persuade the person to think or act differently, but that doesn’t work very well. You end up arguing and talking in circles, only to get frustrated with each other. What now?

1. It’s all about the relationship

If your goal is to get someone to change, and you direct all your efforts that way, you will end up sorely disappointed. No one wants to be someone else’s project! Providing a caring relationship might be all that you can accomplish, but that alone is still enormously helpful. We all need human connection, especially when facing an illness.

2. Apply the LEAP approach

Dr. Xavier Amador is a psychiatrist and the author of an excellent book titled, I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help!: How to Help Someone with Mental Illness Accept Treatment. I encourage you to read the book as he has many great insights and tips, including the LEAP approach to communicate more effectively with a person who is unwilling to accept treatment.

Listen – practice active listening; really listen to what the person feels, thinks, and wants, without reacting. THEN state back to them, in your own words, what your understanding is of what they feel, think, or want.

Empathize – Dr. Amador states that “you must empathize with all the reasons he has for not wanting treatment…especially with any feelings connected to delusions.” This is not, however, the same as agreeing with a delusional belief. For instance, you might say to someone who feels as if they’re under surveillance, “It must be scary to feel like someone is spying on you,” which demonstrates your neutrality as to whether any spying is going on, while still acknowledging the fear underlying the delusion.

Agree – find some kind of common ground, make observations about things you can both agree on, and ask questions. For example, the person may want to continue their education, to which you can observe that they seemed to concentrate better when they took their medication regularly. You can also ask if the voices were less intrusive when they were taking their medication. If you can both agree that these observations are accurate, taking the medication could ultimately be linked to the person’s goal of further education.

Partner – once you have found that common ground and can identify a shared goal, you can partner with the person to achieve the goal. Dr. Amador stresses the importance of focusing on the shared goals, and not on the idea of mental illness. It doesn’t matter if the person never agrees that they have a mental illness; what matters is that they are working with you to achieve their goals and improve their lives. And isn’t that what you really want for them?

3. Be patient

If change does occur, it will likely not be on your timeline. It can take a very long time for sufficient trust to develop. Don’t forget, people cannot just decide to “get over” an illness! Just as you cannot talk someone out of having cancer, you cannot persuade brain structure or function to heal. You can only invite healing through empathetic listening.

4. Know your limits & have a team

There is only so much you can do as a friend or family member. You may not be able to “save” your loved one, but you can recognize what is within your control – your own actions. Let go of trying to control anything else. Have supports for yourself, and look after your own health and safety. I strongly encourage developing a relationship with the person’s health care team – even if they can’t give you confidential information, they can still partner with you.

Providing a caring relationship might be all that you can accomplish, but that alone is still enormously helpful.

A survey of persons with mental health concerns found that the number one thing they considered essential to their quality of life, was their relationships with family and friends. Never doubt that you can make a difference!

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Wilma Schroeder

BN, MMFT and Trainer, CTRI

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