When Someone You Love Lives with Severe Mental Illness

Today I’m pleased to welcome Tamara Hill, MS,  as my guest writer. Tamara is a therapist specializing in child and adolescent mental health. Although she has worked with trauma and autism spectrum disorders, she gleans most of her experience from working with parents, families, and caregivers within the mental health system. She is well known for her advocacy and has spoken on a variety of radio shows, both nationally and internationally, and contributes to multiple media outlets. As a family consultant and advocate, Tamara Hill photoTámara aims to empower families to re-discover authentic living outside of a complex and unfair system.

Severe Mental Illness: Self-Knowledge Makes All The Difference

By Tamara Hill

Do you have a loved one suffering from a mental health condition? Is it mild, moderate, or severe? Can your loved one function independently without you and if not, what are your thoughts about this? These questions were posed to an audience of parents, families, and caregivers at a NAMI parent-to-parent and family-to-family meeting I attended back in April of 2013. I sat amongst a group of mothers, aunts, and siblings who were drastically affected by the mental health condition of their loved one. These families had been exposed to the horrifying consequences of untreated and poorly treated mental illness such as homelessness, incarceration for petty offenses (some major), victimization (rape, murder, robbery), and violence. As I listened to the families share their stories and ask questions, I observed all of us communicating in almost a frantic manner. It was like I stepped outside of myself and could see that we were all so very similar in our plea for change. We recognize that society is becoming the victim of a larger system that criminalizes, ignores, and devalues families almost everywhere. As a therapist, I feel responsible for speaking out on this topic and using my knowledge to educate families. As a friend to someone I love dearly who is suffering, I feel motivated to de-criminalize the innocent victims of poor mental health and impulsive decision making. My career has become my life’s calling, my passion, my responsibility.

After such an earthshattering revelation, I got to work. I found major problems in the system, but currently focus on 3 major issues:

1. Parents, families, and caregivers are highly devalued in the mental health system:  Unfortunately, many parents and families are put on the back burner if their child is 14-years-old and older in many states. In PA, for example, a 14 year old can reject treatment and keep certain details hidden from their families. Mental Health Professionals are at no obligation to share “non-threatening” details with a family. In many cases, talk of suicide or homicide may or may not reach the ears of a family if a professional determines it unnecessary. If a 14-year-old requires medication, this too will not include parents and family. This is too much power in the hands of youngsters and strangers (i.e.., mental health professionals).

2. Civil commitment laws have created more tragedies than society is aware of:  Civil commitment laws prevent families from having a “dangerous” or self-injurious loved one committed for their safety and the safety of others. In moments of great distress, families are left alone to determine the best options for their loved ones. In many cases, there are few options available to families because of the law. The law prevents appropriate and timely treatment.

3.  Lack of support and resources for families experiencing a crisis:  A family is often left alone to make decisions on their own. Families who are uninformed about the system operate on trial and error, asking multiple questions during short encounters with healthcare professionals, or reading multiple books from a library. Research on the Internet, asking friends and co-workers, or making multiple mistakes is often how parents and families get by. This should never be!

Self-knowledge is extremely important for parents, families, and caregivers. Because families are often on their own to figure things out, there are 2 important things I encourage you to do if you have a suffering loved one:

Engage in psychological preparation.

1. Accept that you can encounter a crisis or emergency any day, any time: Acceptance of reality makes the reality you may have to face, a tad easier.

2. Have a plan:  Write down, in a notebook dedicated to your “crisis plan,” things you could do if an emergency occurs. For example, if your loved one begins to hallucinate, write down what your first few steps might be. Will it be a discussion with your loved one? Will it be hospitalization? Will you  enlist the help of family or friends? Also consider if calling the police would make matters worse or better.

3. Engage in self-care: Helping yourself before you can help someone else is extremely important.  Resting your mind, taking breaks, and caring for yourself is almost like preparation for the unknown.

Engage in behavioral preparation. 

1. Know what you will do and say: When emergencies occur, it’s really easy to say and do whatever comes to mind.  I’m guilty of this myself! But you want to have some idea of what you will do. Speaking calmly is often helpful, calling others for help, having emergency numbers close, etc. are all helpful. I  often encourage families to keep emergency numbers on them at all times and memorize them if you can.

2.  Know how you will subdue threatening behavior: In cases of severe mental illness where violence is a possibility, be vigilant and know what you will do if your loved one’s behavior becomes violent or self-harming. It’s difficult for people to associate violence with those they love, but an illness often removes your loved one from reality, increasing the possibility of violence. Have a plan.

Coping with a loved one’s condition can be very stressful for everyone involved. It is emotionally, psychologically, and physically overwhelming. This is why I encourage self-care, creating a crisis plan, and teaming up with people who can support you. Gain as much self-knowledge as you can. We live in an “every man for himself society” and sadly, that mentality circulates throughout our mental health system. But you can guard against this by knowing how to protect yourself and those you love.

I wish you well.


When Someone You Love Lives with Severe Mental Illness — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing Tamara’s good words, Kathy. I had the pleasure of an exchange with her via another blog a little while ago.

    I appreciate and support the 3 major issues she focuses on. They are fundamental, and the experience many of us have lived. There are many gaps to fill in this whole system, and it’s good to know we have a good and growing team of advocates.

    This post is definitely a keeper!

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