Strength and Care: How to Support Loved Ones with Mental Disorders

Mental disorders affect much more than just the client. Because people do not exist in a vacuum of space, mental disorders affect family and friends of the client. Like a group effort, family and friends of the client also work towards recovery through supporting and helping the client. Hence, family and friends become a big part of the disorder-treatment-recovery process.

Family and friends, or the support system, offer the majority of their support through acts of empathy and care. These are defined by the way they can be present and available to the client. Examples of empathy are listening and trying to understand instead of correcting or shaming. Being proactive in treatment if they are involved in the goals and interventions set by the client and their therapist. Holding space for the client to be themselves. Researching and offering new resources for care and recovery.

Some of the empathetic behavior comes with being part of the treatment. This is usually decided by the client and whether or not they want to include different components of their support system in their treatment goals set during therapy. Being part of the client’s treatment can include, but is not limited to:

  • being a point-person to talk about difficult feelings,
  • modifying behaviors or triggers within the home to help the client acclimate,
  • attending seminars or support groups to process personal beliefs the family may have regarding the client’s diagnosis

Being a support to someone with a mental disorder can be, at times exhausting and frustrating. Trying to understand and work with someone whom you don’t completely understand can wear you down fast. That’s why it’s important to know our limits. Even though we want to be there for our loved ones we can’t give them to drink from an empty cup. Meaning, that we must first fill our own cup with love, trust, patience, care and support before we can give it to others. Being able to define what self-care is for us is important in caring for ourselves. Self-care can be sleeping in, exercising, cooking a delicious meal, or even saying no. Self-care is your space to recharge and center yourself.

An added component to self-care is the definition of boundaries. Many a time we are quick to jump on board and try to help without first checking in with ourselves. We need to be able to know when enough is enough. We need to know when we have done all that we could for the day, for that moment, or even for that lifetime. By not being able to set boundaries of how far we are willing t help, we are basically throwing ourselves to the wolves. We are not all powerful nor all knowing, and understanding that is the first step to accepting our limitations.

Finally, with any care-giving job we need to be aware of the fact that we are not here to save people. Our job is not to bring people back from the brink of hell and into a heavenly space. Recovery is a very personal and arduous process. As a care taker you can support the client, provide a healthier and safer environment, a non-judgmental space and your genuine care; however, all these things are not the only helping factors that come into play when caring for someone with a mental illness. All your support does create a base for trust and love but it does not, by itself, bring a complete recovery to a person with a mental illness. The client will need therapy, maybe medication, self-exploration, processing, and a desire, as well as movement, towards wanting to get better. You, as the care taker, are responsible for your support and how you treat the client. You, however, are not responsible for the recovery or the lack there of. A person must want to change before they can actually move towards wellness.

It’s kind of like riding a bike. Another person’s desire for a kid (the client) to learn how to write a bike is not enough to actually teach the kid to ride a bike. The kid has to want to ride the bike and seek for someone who can teach you how to ride the bike. The support (you as a caretaker) that the kid is given are given is what keeps the kid feeling safe and motivated to learn.

Care-taking is exhausting and frustrating; and just because you can think of ways that a person can get better does not equate to the person a)knowing that they can do better, b)understanding how they can do better, and c)getting better. If you are feeling at the end of your rope, frustrated or angry towards the client than it’s time to step back and re-evaluate. You cannot live someone else’s journey for them. The client needs to find their own strength, their own autonomy and their own self-love.

It is hard to accept that you can’t completely help someone get better. People are not objects that get fixed. People are messy and complicated sets of thoughts, feeling, and actions that act on their own accord. All you can do is support them, care for them, and love them in the hopes that they love themselves enough to seek help and care for themselves. You did your part by being present, helpful and caring; now it’s the client’s turn to find ways they can be all those things for themselves.

Signing off,



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