Becoming a caregiver can be daunting at any point in life. Caring for a person who is experiencing a mental health crisis or has an ongoing mental illness carries unique challenges. However, there is potential to find hope and joy along your caregiving journey. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, many people may find themselves becoming mental and physical health caregivers.
Being thrust into the role of a caregiver may feel overwhelming at first. Though each situation is different, the caregiver role can often feel isolating. I understand the range of emotions and stress that come with becoming a caregiver. When I was in 7th grade, my mother had a manic-depressive episode. Before that time I had no clue that my mom had been receiving treatment for bipolar disorder. I was shocked when I witnessed my mother’s personality change overnight. My family and I became caregivers almost immediately. I know for a fact that there can be joy in caregiving. I’d like to share a few tips on caring for your loved ones with mental illnesses while maintaining your own mental health.
1. Do Your Research
One of the most helpful tools for me as a young person coming to grips with caregiving was to do all the research I could about my mother’s condition. Knowing what to expect gave me peace of mind, and it intensified my interest in mental health care. It can be difficult to separate the illness from your loved one at times. Knowing the trademarks of the illness can help you observe the thoughts and behaviors that are symptomatic. This in turn can help you become more of an asset to your loved ones healing because you can share your observations with the care team. If the patient is taking medication, it is also helpful to learn possible side effects and keep an eye out for them.
One of the biggest struggles my family faced when helping my mom reach mental wellness was a surprisingly simple one. We weren’t listening. We talked to the therapists and we read the articles but we weren’t listening to the person who mattered most. According to Mental Health America, “It is important to learn what type of care your loved one would like. A thorough way of ensuring a patient’s desires are met is by completing a Psychiatric Advance Directive. This is a form filled out when they are feeling stable and it discusses what treatment they would/would not like to receive in a crisis. Click here for more information on Psychiatric Advance Directives.”
By checking in with your loved one about how they would like to receive treatment, you restore their sense of autonomy. This can be a good first step toward managing symptoms with minimal outside help.
3. Encourage Autonomy
My family was very cautious around my mom once she became more stable. This frustrated her because she wanted to be treated like she was before she had her episode. It can be scary to trust your family member with certain decisions during their journey to mental wellness.
According to Mental Health America, “Giving a person the freedom to choose what treatment they receive, what they eat, where they live, who they associate with, their work status, and to make decisions regarding their education is considered self-determination. When individuals take control of their lives, even in small ways, it improves their outlook on life and mental health.” Sometimes it can be beneficial to trust the progress that has been made. This resource is a great guide for your loved one to fill out at their own pace in order to take greater control of their life.
4. Maintain the Friendship
Having a mental illness can be a lonely experience at times. It is important that your loved one feels supported by friends and family. I know how hard it can be to be friends with people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. I remember thinking that my mother had been replaced by some strange body snatcher. I took solace in the moments when her personality would break through her mania and depression. According to Mental Health America it is important to focus on the love you have for your family member. That love can carry you through even the darkest moments of caregiving. Listen to your loved one and let them know that you are there for them through it all.
5. Don’t Pour from an Empty Cup
There is a reason that whenever the oxygen masks release on an airplane, you are instructed to put yours on before you begin to help others. You cannot be of help to your loved one if you have not taken the time to care for yourself. According to Mental Health America, approximately 1 out of 4 caregivers of a person with a mental illness has depression themselves. The stress, worry, and emotional roller-coaster of caregiving have consequences if you do not take care of yourself. Make sure you take time to exercise, eat healthily, and do the activities that make you smile. This will sustain you and allow you to show up as the best version of yourself for your loved one.
Caregiving is a journey that can be as demanding as it rewarding. It is important to learn about your loved ones illness in order to support them most effectively. Be sure to listen to their needs as treatment progresses. Remember, the goal is to get your family member to a space where they can manage their condition on their own. It can be daunting at first to allow them to have more autonomy, but it is crucial to the healing process for them to take steps toward independence. Finally, it is crucial that you take care of you before you can take care of anyone else. In these unprecedented times, anxiety and depression are common. Caregivers are especially vulnerable to these conditions, so take the time to show yourself as much love as you show others.