How to Interact with the Mentally Ill
The purpose of this piece is to help the reader how to interact, both verbally and nonverbally, with people with mental illness; and as a corollary, how to get them the help they need. It’s basically a list of do’s and don’ts that I have compiled in my head over many years of seeing patients and dealing with their loved ones… becomes sometimes the former are far easier to deal with than the latter. Anyway, I’m constantly asked, “What do I do? What do I say?” Well, here is the answer to those.
Look, I understand that it’s very difficult when a loved one has a mental illness. A lot of issues come into play; a lot of balls in the air. So learn to juggle. Please understand that in some cases, logic no longer applies here, because when the mentally ill person is your child, your sister, your brother, your mother, your father, the rules don’t apply anymore; the book is out the window. But yet without it, you still have to figure out how you can help them while also respecting them, maintaining their dignity, and helping them to seek effective treatment. There are always degrees of everything. Some patients may be very independent and autonomous and need little help, and some may require a lot of help to get through their days. For the tougher cases, it may be easy to say, “Oh, just send them away to the hospital,” but that’s not how it this works. If you love them, that’s exactly what you don’t do. No finger snap and off they go, no fuss, no muss. Do be prepared to get appropriately fussy and mussy when, and if, necessary. It may not be necessary. But it may be.
Denial. Nope. You no longer have this luxury. Don’t pretend that they don’t have an illness. This is one of the most common issues that I see, families and friends sticking their heads in the proverbial sand. “He’s just eccentric!” Ugh, how I hate that word. No. Running naked across the Brooklyn Bridge while chased by half of the NYPD is not eccentricity. It is not a statement. It is not a personality quirk. And turning a blind eye is nothelpful. Loved ones that continuously make excuses for unusual, inappropriate, and/ or dangerous behaviors just allow the illness to flourish, a pretty word for get waaaay worse. I’ve seen too many depressed people make multiple suicide attempts and still not get the help they desperately need. Psychotic people walking around the neighborhood arguing with people only they see, and still the families don’t intervene, because it’s their loved one. They don’t want to interfere or take away that individual’s rights. In the United States, sometimes it’s not until the police finally arrest the person that they are offered help. But a lot of times, not even then. Families make excuses for a lot; too much, really. We live in a system where it is very difficult to give treatment to someone who doesn’t want it. The laws are very weak in terms of forcing people into treatment. So what happens far too often is that these people end up self-medicating with illicit drugs, living on the street, and suffering all of the consequences of being mentally ill without a place to turn to. And if you’re thinking that couldn’t happen to your loved one, you’d be taking a gamble there. Sadly, I’ve had patients belonging to some very wealthy Palm Beach families that managed to find their way from society to sidewalk, just because people were in denial, turned a blind eye, didn’t want to infringe, made excuses, whatever the case was… the end was still the same. If the person in question is a friend, or for some reason you don’t feel it’s your place to discuss treatment with them, then find out who you should talk to, and do so. Also, consider that you might be the only person in a place to see or know what’s really going on. You may be the one who has to make the difference for them, the one standing between them and help. So no denial, no blind eye, no excuses. If you love them, you have to face the issue head on in the appropriate way. It’s the only compassionate thing to do, and the most compassionate thing you can do.
Get some stick-to-it-itiveness and give some hope. Tell your loved one that they can get better, that treatment is available, and that better days will come. And once you do establish a treatment regime, good follow through is very important. Dounderstand that treatment can take years. It could even be a lifelong kind of deal. It won’t always be hectic and scary, a rollercoaster of loop de loops. Truthfully, it might even get monotonous, this appointment, then that one; this med, then that one. But I can tell you that once you find the right regime, if you stick to it, it will be rewarding. Just be supportive and keep standing by them. It may not always be the easiest thing ever, but it may well be the most rewarding thing ever.
Education is more than a do, it is a must. Everyone, the primary caregivers, ancillary caregivers, friends, families, associates, everyone should become educated. And as I said above, always instill hope and be supportive. This can and does get better. Be willing to help this person from A to Z, whether these things are obvious or not: to seek help, to help make their appointments, to make their appointments if they can’t for any reason (and yes, sometimes this is hard for them to do), to get to their appointments, to get to the hospital, to get to the day program, to get to the intensive outpatient program, to get to detox, to get to the treatment center, to the ER, wherever or whatever or whenever they need help.
Always express genuine concern. It is critical. They have mental illness, but that doesn’t mean they are stupid. They see through bull#%*£ as easily as you do. If they sense fake concern, they will assume that they’re a burden, you just want to get rid of them, or just want to shut them up. Captain Obvious says that this will be a blockade to their progress. I say that this could be the last blockade of their lives, and not in a good way. You never know when someone is at a tipping point. If you love them, do be honest, caring, and honestly caring.
Share “simple” insights. I use quotation marks, because sometimes what is simple to you may not be so simple to the person with mental illness. Depressed people may not be able to discern what’s good for them, or may not care what’s good for them. Daily activities tend to fall by the wayside when a human brain is contemplating if it’s worth it to live to see tomorrow, so they may not care what they’ll smell like tomorrow, or if their hair is combed and teeth are brushed tomorrow. It’s not uncommon for ADL’s (activities of daily living) to not make the to-do list. If you note this, do address it, but it’s important to do so in a specific way. Always be gentle. You don’t want to be mean or make them feel any shame. You can say “Maybe you want to take a shower today?” or “Would you like me to run a bubble bath for you? I bet you would feel great after you relax in a hot bath; I know I always do.” Do this in as gentle and open a tone as you can. Or if they’ve made a big mistake on something consequential, “Maybe it’s best to check your oil levels every few months, just to avoid any problems. We could even put it on the calendar if you want” or “I understand you’re upset that you failed your test (or burned the cookies, broke a vase, lost a jacket) but it’s not the end of the world and you’ll do better/ know better next time. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, and don’t ever yell or chide them. They have feelings just like you do, but they may not have the capacity to take things on the chin like you do. Obvi they don’t want their car to be overheating, or a failed test, or burned cookies, and they’re probably already giving themselves a hard enough time as it is. There may be situations where inappropriate behavior related to their illness might have consequences from others, ie they may accuse someone of acting against them due to paranoia, eliciting a negative response. Or, maybe they’ve dressed a certain way and they’re made fun of or bullied in some way. Firstly, this can be a teaching moment, where you can educate that other person about mental illness or how all people are different. But then when you discuss it with your loved one, you can say “Maybe next time, try not to be so direct” or “…try to be less accusatory” or “…should dress more appropriately” or “If you were a little more open, it might be easier to make friends.” Whatever the case may be. Don’t demand this or that. Do just make suggestions, easy breezey lemon squeezey. Don’tmake a federal case out of stuff. “You know what, I understand that you believe that there are little aliens in the wall shooting you with energy beam guns, but people would disagree with you, so I don’t think that you should share those thoughts with people, because they may judge you in a negative way if you do.” Don’t put them on the defensive. Always find common ground and let them know that it’s safe to tell you anything and everything through encouragement. If they say, “The CIA have me under surveillance, and they’re reporting me to the president. They’re coming to take me to jail.” The safe common ground is usually that you know they think or believe whatever the thought is, ie “I know that you believe that, and it could happen, but I think it’s unlikely, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.” You can also add “Do you think you should mention that to Dr. Psychiatrist next time? I think he/ she would like to know that, don’t you?” Do make them feel safe to tell you whatever it is they may be feeling by not being judgemental. Do keep an open mind and once again, remember that mental illness has nothing to do with one’s intelligence.
Be aware of expressed emotion. It is exactly what it sounds like… how you express your emotion. You’re not a saint or an angel, you’re human, and you’ll have normal emotions like anger and frustration. But do pay attention to how you express it. Do take a breath, take a moment before you respond so that you can control how you express yourself. By the way, this is actually a good idea for everyone, no matter who you are or aren’t dealing with. Don’t ever raise your voice. Doalways speak in a relaxed and calm manner. Don’ttalk quickly. Don’t ever back them into a corner. Do speak in a calm and even tone in a quiet area without distractions. Do communicate in a very straightforward way, addressing one issue at a time. Do be apathetic, compassionate, and respectful.
Have a reflective listening policy. Do always listen to what they have to say. Even if you think what they’re saying is totally inappropriate, listen to what they have to say. And yes, I realize that this can be very difficult sometimes, but take a breath and listen. You can even tell them that you have a reflective listening policy, and that means that you will always listen to them before you respond. Then back it up by listening respectfully. Then if they have difficulty listening to you and respecting what you say, you can remind them of your policy and ask them for the same courtesy. It’s honestly just a better way to run your life; it makes it so much simpler. My wife and I told our son about this policy, and followed through and raised him with it, since before he could say the word policy, and it turned out just fine and saved a lot of headaches. I can’t stress how important it is to be a good listener.
This is a corollary to being a good listener… ask appropriate questions well, appropriately, ie softly or easily. Do ask simple questions: “Did you have breakfast today?” “We aren’t able to find your medicine, is everything okay with your medications?” Don’t say, “Did you take your medicine today?” “Did you eat yet?” It tends to sound accusatory. In a very gentle way, you say, “Everything okay with your medicine? Oh, here’s the bottle. Any problems?” Let them speak. Don’t press them. If they’ve forgotten to eat or take medications, don’t get upset or angry, tale a breath, let them explain. If you have an issue about why they don’t want to take their medication, listen to why. Respect them and let them at least give you an interpretation of the reasons and symptoms. Don’t interpret for them. There may be a side effect that’s intolerable to them, and all of that must be brought to the prescribing physician. It’s all valid information, so do listen. After you have listened, you may then calmly answer “I heard that you don’t like to take your medicine because it makes you xyz, but if you don’t want to take it, we’ll call Dr. Prescriber and explain it and see what he/ she says, okay?” That way they know you listened to what’s going on, they know they’ve been heard, but they also know it’s either take the medication or talk to the doctor.
I have heard some families make demands, withhold privelleges, make bargains, bark orders, physically intimidate; I’ve heard it all. It makes me a little anxious when I hear things like “Just take your *expletive* medicine!” or “Let’s pray about it.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for prayer, but it’s inappropriate in some respects when it comes to should Bobby or Suzie take their medication today, because they don’t feel like it.
Other don’ts: You need an attitude adjustment. You’ve got a bad attitude. Stop being so negative for once. You need to get a job. Why can’t you do something productive with your life? You need something to do. Your thoughts are totally misguided. Now you’re just being dumb. You really are crazy. Don’t act crazy.
No. None of those things are appropriate, ever. Especially the word “crazy” or any similar term. That is the ultimate “C word” in my office. Doremove it from your vocabulary, pronto. The goal is to not agitate them. No ultimatums. No threats. No punishment. It will get you nowhere except to crisis. Criticizing them or blaming them is a no go. And don’t ever speak rapidly or loudly. And don’tstare at them. It invites defiance. Silence is okay. Pauses are okay. I know you may get frustrated, but any sort of frustration or anger directed at them will not work. Don’t make jokes or be sarcastic, because it’s not funny. I don’t find it funny at all. Don’t talk at them with a patronizing, condescending tone, as in, “Are you going to take your medicine today, or what?” “Could you shower already, you know you smell?” “Are you going to do anything today besides watch TV and smoke cigarettes?” “Have you gotten a job yet?” “You are so useless” “You don’t work. How about you get a job to pay for things?” “When are you going to stop taking and start giving?” “Do you ever worry about anyone but yourself?” These kinds of comments do not work. If any of my patients report this kind of thing, I always make it a point to correct the situation quickly, because it can be very damaging, especially to an already fragile person.
You are dealing with a loved one with a mental illness, so do establish rapport, and through that rapport, using some of these do’s and don’ts which I just gave you, try to help them get a psychiatric appointment, get to a psychologist, get to a day program, or at least get them to some medical health practitioner for an evaluation. That may mean making an appointment with primary care for a referral, calling their psychiatrist or mental health therapist, or even taking them to an emergency room if it is an urgent situation. In some cases, it may even be necessary to call 911 and have them taken by police or ambulance if they aren’t willing to go on their own and they’re in crisis. Do be willing to do what it takes. Hopefully you’ll be properly directed to appropriate levels of care, and then do follow through with that. Don’t just let it go. Bottom line is get them somewhere. The most important thing that can happen at that point is that that caregiver establishes a bond with the individual, your loved one, and using that relationship, they can motivate and encourage and direct their care. That’s what you’re looking for: a caregiver (psychiatrist or mental health professional) they trust, that they will be honest and open with. That professional should be able to navigate issues and properly direct them to the appropriate level of care.
So, you want to do everything in your power to encourage a good relationship between your loved one and that professional. Don’t sabotage that relationship. Work within that relationship. Don’tthreaten that caregiver. Don’t give the caregiver ultimatums. Do everything in your power to maintain a good open relationship between the mental health professional/ caregiver and the patient, your loved one.
I hope this was helpful to any and all that needed to read it.
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