Dealing with the changes and unpredictable behavior of a loved with a mental health disorder can be stressful and may leave family members feeling stressed and anxious. Seeing and dealing with the symptoms and effects of the disorder on someone we care for is a frightening and exhausting experience and could leave us at a loss on how to handle the situation.
“It is easy for family members to feel guilt or blame themselves for their relative’s decline in mental health. For a long time, parents and other family members were the focus of blame for the occurrence of psychological problems.” Dr. Niall Campbell said, who happens to be a Consultant Psychiatrist.
The lifestyle changes and adjustments needed to ensure good mental health are changes that need to be made not only by the person diagnosed with the disorder, but the need to adjust extends to those around them as well. Family life can become unsettled, unpredictable and challenging but the key to finding balance starts with understanding and acceptance.
Do you show Empathy or Sympathy?
What are the differences between these terms? “Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not always. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them,” says psychiatrist Neel Burton, M.D.
Sympathy is about feeling compassion or pity for the person diagnosed with the mental disorder, while empathy is when you are able to put yourself in their shoes and understand the challenges that come with the disorder as seen through their eyes.
In order to understand and accept the challenges as a family unit, empathy is essential. With understanding, you are able to acknowledge and accept that you cannot change the diagnosis. Instead, you can find ways to improve the mental health of the individual as well as the loved ones dealing with the person through making adjustments and accommodating the need for change. In order to adjust, process and support your loved one, there has to be compassion. Showing sympathy for how the challenges of the disorder affect them is understandable and acceptable but with empathy, you can help them.
“It’s very important for counsellors and psychotherapists that they extend empathy over sympathy to their clients,” says Clinical Director Dr. Sheri Jacobson.
How Can I Help?
There are a number of ways in which family, friends or colleagues can offer assistance and support that will help the diagnosed individual to achieve good mental health, which is the key to managing the effects and symptoms of the mental disorder. In order to achieve this, offering support begins with empathy and understanding and the first step to understanding is acceptance without judgment.
Having access to a support system is the most important thing you can give someone with a mental disorder. Many people diagnosed feel isolated, with the number of stigmas attached to these disorders. People shy away from seeking help which is detrimental to their mental health. Here are a few suggestions on how to offer support to a friend, loved one or colleague diagnosed with a mental health disorder:
- First and foremost, encourage them to source and seek professional assistance.
- Educate yourself and others on the disorder.
- Encourage group appointments that include family and friends. This does not only show your commitment to helping them achieve good mental health but will give everyone the knowledge and tools to deal with the effects of the disorder.
- Seek out resources, offer suggestions on support systems and programs but ensure that you also lean on those support systems. Maintaining your own mental health, especially after facing the challenges that plague a loved one, friend or colleague, can be troublesome.
- Encourage them to maintain a normal life. Suggest social activities, hobbies or community projects in which you can all participate in.
- Have realistic expectations. Do not expect people or life to just go back to normal. Things will change, so acceptance and understanding are about adjusting to a new life with those changes.
- Always remember that acceptance and adjustment can take time. It might also take a few tries to find what works best for all of you. Finding the right balance will occur at a different pace for everyone. Just practice patience, and the end result is worth the challenges