Supporting a loved one with mental illness can be trying. I’ve witnessed the toll it takes on my husband. I’ve experienced it as a daughter of a mother and father who both had psychiatric conditions. A chronic mental health condition is like addiction. Even when well managed, its presence is still felt in the relationship.  

My husband has taught me a lot about what it means to support someone. With practice, I do it more and more for myself. Some I already knew, some I only discovered by being with him at my most vulnerable, my most messy.

Think psychosis. Think oozing self-loathing. Think unrelenting anxiety. I know. Yuck.

What Works

Someone who…

  1. Walks beside me on the journey
  2. Watches a movie with me
  3. Can stand my company even when I can’t
  4. Listens without fixing
  5. Listens and helps me problem solve
  6. Sets boundaries and let’s me know when he’s reached his limit
  7. Reminds me it’s ok to take my beta-blockers; that I DON’T always have to tough it out
  8. Talks with me about ‘trivial’ things that have nothing to do with how I feel
  9. Requires honesty
  10. Tells me to un-pretzel myself when I’m in my most challenging yoga pose. You know that one of navel gazing and head up my butt. It’s surprising how long I can hold that posture.
  11. Helps me name things I’m ashamed of – like when he asks ‘peeled grape’ day? Yes – that’s how I feel, frequently, more frequently than I’d like to admit.
  12. Explains naps are good medicine and gives him a break too!

What does your partner do that helps you when you’re in struggle mode?

What do you do as a partner to help your loved one?

© Victoria Maxwell



Mother’s Day 2019 just happened.

Mom, I’d like to say ‘thank-you’ to you publicly. To say how much I love you, Mrs. Velma Maxwell. How the person you are, at 88, makes me smile, feel good, and warm. How I still feel like a cared for daughter even though I’m frequently more the mom taking care of you.

It wasn’t always this way. I was a brat. You could be infuriating. Our ups and downs were compounded, literally by both of us having the same diagnosis. Bipolar disorder and anxiety. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Perhaps more accurately the nut doesn’t.

The anxiety that needles my stomach and muddles my mind offers a way in for me to comprehend all those years when you fretted and paced and wrung your hands. My depressions that hover like mist and manias that sizzle the bottoms of my feet close a gap of misunderstanding and impatience.

I was a teenager, and embarrassed by you. Angry, confused and scared by your manic rage as a child, so easily was thrown at dad, impaling him with insults, slurs and cacophonies of profanities.

But over the years we found a way to use our love and insane similarities to overcome our differences. Today, the things we do give me a quiet joy. We hang out and play double solitaire. Eat take-out lunch I bring in from the Eighties Restaurant. Your beloved toasted triple decker clubhouse sandwich with fries and chocolate milkshake.

We talk about inconsequential things that aren’t. The TV shows you’re watching and the ones you won’t. ‘Law and Order: SVU’ your favourite that you always watch. The Big Bang Theory, the one you won’t because it’s ‘dumb’. How the food at the nursing home is awful, but Linda the care-aide is ok.  How the Canucks (who you follow devotedly) won’t be getting anywhere near the play-offs this year.

Thank-you mom for having a knack for always helping me feel loved. You are in my heart always.

© Victoria Maxwell



This week is the 68th Mental Health Week founded by the Canadian Mental Health Association! That’s a whole heck lot of talkin’, learnin’ and awareness buildin’ about mental health!

My contribution this year is shedding some light on psychosis in the hopes it will increase compassion. I wrote this for my Psychology Today blog a few years ago, but it bears repeating.

Dear Hospital Emergency Ward Staff,

When you see me in a manic high, wrestled in here by my father; or as you watch my mother, sitting with me in the waiting area, holding my hand while I ramble gibberish to an invisible friend, please remember this: I may be crazy but I can hear. I may be mad but I can see. I may be insane but I’m still smart.

I can see you rolling your eyes when my behavior is bizarre. I can hear you when you shout to the security guard to ‘catch the crazy woman’ as I fly to find some scissors. I know you’re referring to me when you look at me but whisper to your colleague, then purse your lips and shake your head.

I don’t want to be running around the emergency ward in florid psychosis looking for God. I don’t want to be strapped to a gurney needing sedatives to calm the fire in my brain while I scream for the Mother Ship to beam me up.

Maybe it’s because you’re burned out, under-resourced, over-taxed, understaffed and over-stressed. But, I am a human being before I’m a ‘frequent flyer’, the ‘nut case who must be on drugs’, that patient who can wait because ‘she’s non-compliant’.

I understand that I’m hard to understand and hard to manage. I know your job is trying; that you do your best; that you do care. But please don’t forget that just like you, I have a heart. A heart that hurts when someone judges me for something that isn’t in my control; when someone doesn’t see that really I’m doing everything I can to get well even though it doesn’t look that way.

Because I also feel when you, the paramedic who wheels me through the hospital doors, stream such soft compassion from your eyes and gently nod goodbye to me. I sense when you, the nurse whose name I do not know, rests your hand on my shoulder with such respect that dignity rises from my feet.

So please remember, even when I’m laughing like a drunken hyena, and my father paces the green linoleum while my mother strangles her panicked hands, and all three of us wait for the attending doctor, I am aware of the kind light in your face as you tell us (including me) that you wish there was more you could do but hopefully it shouldn’t be much longer. No matter how crazy I may be, I am aware. And when your heart remembers that, my heart does too.

Let me know what you think. What has it been like for you if you’ve been in a psychosis or if you’ve been with someone while they’ve been in one?

© Victoria Maxwell



There are many reasons why people don’t accept a diagnosis of mental illness.

I received an email the other month from someone whose spouse had psychotic experiences and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, the spouse believes they had a powerful spiritual experience.

The spouse has agreed to see a psychiatrist, and continues to see their counsellor, but won’t take medication.

I’ve been in that very position, refusing both the diagnosis and medication. Understandably. The experiences I’ve had (two, quite recently) from a science approach typically are called psychosis. I like to call it non-shared reality. Regardless how you describe them, elements of these experiences are profound for me.

I’ve always had difficulty with the ‘either/or’ perspective. Either my experience is an illness as seen through the medical model OR it’s strictly a spiritual experience as seen through alternative perspectives such as the anti-psychiatry movement or transpersonal psychology.

What I experienced was more nuanced. To cavalierly categorize it as either only alienates me from potential help.

But what to do?

In my case, I encountered a brilliant psychiatrist who helped me understand what I experienced could be both. Or, more accurately, they could exist simultaneously.

I had undergone (and continue to undergo) spiritual experiences meaningful to me. While at the same time I have a mental illness that would benefit from some medical assistance.

I’ve come to understand the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis does not diminish the importance of these personally transformative events. Mental illness and spiritual awakening are not mutually exclusive.

This was life-changing for me. It allowed me to embrace the spiritual path I held so dearly while also accepting much needed treatment for psychiatric disorders which were, in no uncertain terms, ravaging my life and relationships.

I am of the belief, for some people, we need to blend both approaches, spiritual and medical. If either one excludes or denigrates the other, it won’t be helpful. For me, the litmus test is this: does the person have the quality of life they want? Is the approach they are using causing them more suffering or less?

I wanted to be someone who didn’t need to take medications. But I’m not that kind of person. Some people don’t need to or can manage without. For me, I needed to be open to the possibility of needing meds and not needing them. I needed my support circle to be on board with that too. Or to be honest with me about any bias they had. That built trust. Trust in the end is the best bridge to help build a life worth living.

Allowing for ‘Both’ rather than forcing an ‘Either/Or’ stance made getting better, well…better. I am able to comfortably hold both my spiritual and medical model perspectives. It’s a fine line, but that’s fine with me.

The following are resources to help those of you grappling with the ‘either/or’ situation. Whether you are supporting someone who identifies only with the spiritual, even to their detriment, or for those of you given a psychiatric diagnosis and trying to reconcile it with your profound experiences, I hope these shed some light and offer insight.

1. Visions Magazine – This edition focuses on spirituality and how it related to mental illness. Visions is an award-winning magazine that brings together many views on mental health and substance use.

https://cmha.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/visions_sprirituality.pdf

The following I wrote or created in partnership with others. Each describe in different ways my journey integrating both a spiritual perspective and medical model approach to help my life come into balance so I could begin to flourish.

2. Bridging Science and Spirit – a 7-minute documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXq9B9a3sOI

3. Does God* Have A Place In Psychiatric Treatment Plans? – blog

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/crazy-life/200910/does-god-have-place-in-psychiatric-treatment-plans

Note: I use the word ‘God’ but don’t mean it in the strictly religious sense, per say. I use it interchangeably with Love, the Divine, Universe, Spirit, Goodness, what-have-you. Please replace it with what you are most comfortable with.

4. I Went Off my Meds to be More Spiritual: Spiritual Growth and Psychiatric Medication – an oxymoron?  http://victoriamaxwell.com/i-went-off-my-meds-to-be-more-spiritual/

5. Crazy for Life – My theatrical keynote (aka one-person stage show) focusing on my struggle to reconcile the mental illness diagnosis with profound spiritual experiences. In it, I describe how medication, for me at least, needs to be part of my wellness tool box. Not the only one, but one nonetheless. View a clip from the show here (watch at 1min 25sec): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-CU5DaOl74&t=7s  Also available for download purchase. http://victoriamaxwell.com/product/crazy-for-life-a-story-about-accepting-help-for-mental-illness/

Have you had spiritual experiences within your mental illness? Do you think it is one or the other? I’d love to hear from you to learn about how you made sense of it.  

© Victoria Maxwell

I do it. You do it. Even birds do it. No, not that. I’m talking about sleep.

Anyone with depression or bipolar disorder, including loved ones of those with the conditions, knows how important consistent good night sleeps are to staying well1. They cultivate equilibrium in mood, mind and heart. Sleep is important for everybody. But, doubly so for anyone with a mood disorder.

Lack of sleep (or irregular sleep patterns) can both trigger a mania or be a warning sign of one.2

With Spring, worm moons, new moons, time changes, and solar flares, along with everyday ups and downs, good nights rests have been hard to come by for me lately. Not a good thing.

When I’m hypomanic (I prefer my personal term: the “Spazzy-McGuinty”* phase) I sleep only five or six hours a night. and still I wake up all bright eyed and bushy tailed. But if that goes on for too many days (more than three) it’s a red flag. Luckily, Spazzy McGuinty usually calms down on her own accord within a couple days. *The exact origins of “Spazzy McGuinty” remains unknown. However, I do know it is a ‘special’ term of manic endearment created by my husband Gordon and I.

When dank depression hits me, I sleep too much. I easily log (not necessarily sawing logs) 10, 12 even, 13 hours of sleep each night but still awake leaden and lost. It’s awful. Sleeping too much is part of atypical depression, which ironically, isn’t atypical at all. It’s actually very common. For others, insomnia is the beast of burden when their depression descends.

So how can sleep become a balm, instead of a bomb in your life when you’re living with a mood disorder?

Commonly referred to as “sleep hygiene” (good sleep habits), below are some of my tricks for consistently getting a good nights’ rest. For the record, I never thought my sleep was all that dirty. Who knew? Okay, well maybe the occasional dream, but still…

 Tips to change your sleeping from a bomb to a balm:

 1) Go to bed and wake up approximately at the same time every night and morning. I usually turn out my lights at 9:00 or 9:30 P.M.(sometimes even 8:30 P.M.). Yes, I proudly embrace my inner grandma. I wake up around 5 or 6 A.M. 8 – 9 hours is ideal for me. I can manage on 7 hours but only for a few days. This may seem like a luxury to sleep that long. But, trust me, it’s a necessity. I also don’t have kids – so it’s actually realistic.

 2) Create a pre-sleep ritual. As is the nature of rituals, I do mine in much the same order every night. These cues tell the brain that sleep is coming and accordingly, the brain begins to wind down.

 This is my pre-sleep ritual. Around 8:00 P.M.:

I change into my jammies, take out my contacts, take off my make-up (on a good night), put on my glasses, floss then brush my teeth and take my medication (mood stabilizer and anti-depressant). Then I snuggle into bed with my hubby. I write tomorrow’s to do list, jotting down anything I need to remember or do the next day so I don’t have it in my head to prevent me from falling asleep. I read for about an hour. Then I turn out the lights around 9:30 P.M. If I’m lucky, and I usually am, Gord gently strokes my forehead or arm as I fall asleep. My hubby probably doesn’t know this but he’s the most important and best part of my sleep hygiene.

 3) Keep the room cooler than normal. We keep a window open, just a crack, even in winter.

 4) Block out as much light as possible. Even light from under a door or from a clock radio can make going to sleep more difficult.

5) Use ear plugs and/or an eye mask. Put them on before you turn out the lights or if you wake up in the early morning when you need to get back to sleep. In hotels when I travel, I turn the clock away from me so the glare doesn’t disturb me and unplug the bar fridge so it’s as quiet as possible.

 6) Make it a TV/cell phone/computer free bedroom. This is a hard one from some people. But believe me. It works wonders to not have any electronics in the room. Some say even reading in bed is a no-no. But I’ve found it relaxes me.

 7) Don’t drink caffeinated beverages (if you drink them at all) in the evening. This includes black tea, soda like Coke and energy drinks. I rarely drink soda but do drink decaf coffee, rooibus or peppermint tea. I usually have only one cup per day. If I have more, I don’t have it any later than 5:30 P.M.

8) Exercise, even if only for 10 minutes a day. I do some form of movement every day. I practice yoga, go running or walk to the mailbox. Whatever I can muster depending on the day.

Experiment with these suggestions. See if any work for you. Put them into practice and do them consistently. When you do, your mood and energy levels will become more stable. If however, you’ve been struggling with insomnia or hypersomnia for some time without relief, please see your doctor. Remember: Poor sleep can wreak havoc in the life of someone who is trying to manage a mood disorder. More importantly though, is to remember that establishing regular sleep patterns can also be a heavenly balm.

© Victoria Maxwell

1. Kahn D., Printz, D., Ross, R., Sachs, G., Treatment of Bipolar Disorder: A Guide for Patients and Families; p. 6; Postgraduate Medicine Special Report, April 2000

2. Helmer, J. Slumber Solutions (add hyperlink: https://www.bphope.com/slumber-solutions/ ), bp Mag/ bpHope.com, Winter 2011

 

Feeling powerless over symptoms often goes with the territory when you live with mental illness. At least it can for me, particularly with anxiety and depression. This isn’t just the case for those of us diagnosed but also those who love and support us. They can feel at the mercy of these debilitating conditions when they’re at their peak.

Like a ragdoll in a tug-o-war between two kids or one in the washing machine (the ragdoll, not the kids) I can feel like I’m at the whim of my symptoms: negative self-talk, extreme fatigue, racing heartbeat, racing thoughts, incessant worry, rumination, lack of focus, aches and pains, hopelessness, emptiness – and those are just the pleasant ones. Kidding.

I enjoy feeling in charge of my mental health. Most weeks I am. But not always. Not by a long shot.

So what do I do? What can you do if you feel like this?

This is a strategy I’ve set up with my husband. It’s not a miracle solution, but it can help lessen the blows of bipolar disorder, psychosis and anxiety that I live with. It can help my husband better weather them too.

Let your loved ones help you. Enlist them into your wellness journey:

My husband knows me well. He catches signs of things shifting up or down better than (and before) I can sometimes. We all have our blind spots.

He’ll see me filling the Britta jug over the top line, or I’m getting up earlier (much earlier) than usual. Or like today, he’ll catch me making a grocery list and doing laundry at 5:00 in the morning. We’ve created a code word so to speak to signal I might be hypomanic. With kindness and enthusiasm, he’ll say ‘Oh. Spazzy Maginty is visiting us today!’

Another day, I fidget a lot in my favorite chair when we eat breakfast together. Or I won’t look him in the eyes when we talk. He might gently ask me ‘How are you doing?’ or more specifically ‘How’s your anxiety?’.

A different instance, he mentions my complexion looks grey and I’m sleeping longer than usual. Or he might recognize I haven’t run in a couple weeks. He’ll smile, look at me and ask if everything’s ok, knowing that likely it’s not.

His comments aren’t criticism but instead observation. Facts that I’ve changed from my baseline of wellness. It’s meant lovingly and delivered that way. It’s information I can use to my advantage. If I take steps to care for myself, I may prevent the anxiety, depression or hypomania from blossoming further. It’s not guaranteed, but it can reduce the intensity.

I’m not to blame for my conditions, and he’s not saying I am. I am however responsible for my health and reaching out for help when I need to.

My next steps are to be on the alert. Revisit and perhaps double up on my wellness tools. I check to make sure I’ve taken my meds and taken them properly. I’ll review and adjust my sleep patterns. Ask myself if I’m putting too much on my plate and if I need to, take things off. I’ll look at my exercise and aim to do a bit more, or do any if it’s fallen off the radar. I’ll call a friend and spend some quality time with them – phone or in person, doesn’t matter to me. As the incomparable Julie Andrews sings (sort of) these are some of my favorite (‘wellness’) things.

Ideally this will result in the levelling off of my symptoms. This isn’t rocket science. But it’s amazing how if I don’t see my warning signs early enough, and make the needed adjustment, how off course I can really go. And I’ve gone off course. Really off course in recent months. Think psychosis (twice) and major anxiety. But with the help and delicate diplomacy of my husband and my own willingness to accept assistance, getting back on more stable ground is possible.

3 Step to Help Prevent Relapse of Mental Illness

Note: Do these steps with your loved ones while you’re well, not when you’re struggling with acute symptoms.

To set the stage ask yourself:

What are your cues? Be specific. Ask your friends and loved ones to chime in about the warning signs they see. Compare notes.

Who do you want to be your ‘cue companion’? How do you want your loved ones or friends to approach you? Decide who and what’s most comfortable for you. You don’t need a husband, or even someone who lives with you. Just someone who cares.

What will your next steps be when they mention something? Have a list of your most effective wellness tools that you’re willing to commit to. Then pick one and do it. Be honest and clear about what you’re willing to do when warning signs start to rear their heads. Set yourself up for success Think tiny adjustments.

Then:

  1. When warning signs arise, your ‘cue companion’ has permission to mention what they see.
  2. Review your wellness tool list (with your loved one if you like)
  3. Take action: add, adjust said tools as needed.

Sometimes I worry, even feel ashamed at times, how much focus it takes to ‘manage’ my mental illnesses; that I might be a burden with all my mental health problems. But Gord has told me when he’s asking me about them, he wants to know. It’s ok, more than ok to talk about my mental health. Go figure?!

I’ve come to realize that this little 3-step system is as much of a sanity saver for him as it is for me.

Try this out with your loved ones and let me know how it goes. Or, if you have a similar system already in place, let me know how that works for you!

© Victoria Maxwell

Some of you know my story. Many of you don’t. Every experience is unique and equally valuable.

Though our stories are ours and ours alone, it always amazes me how similar our journeys can be sometimes:

I’ve met more than a handful of people who have run down the street naked in a psychosis. Psychosis seems to prompt a shedding of clothes. Funny (or maybe not) depression doesn’t inspire the same behaviour.

Other shared experiences include traumatising incidents in the emergency room for both loved ones and those of us with mental illness. Damage done usually due to underfunded and understaffed hospitals, lack of services and overworked health professionals.

I also realize how lucky I have been and still am.

When I was diagnosed, it was the 90’s. I was a 20 something, middle class, white woman, living in one of the most affluent countries in the world boasting universal medical care – Canada.

There were treatments available: pharmaceutical and psychological. Though far from perfect, these treatments were more humane than anything that existed in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and even the 70’s when my Mom was diagnosed.

I also wasn’t struggling with addiction along with bipolar disorder, anxiety and eating disorder.

Addiction complicates accessing help and achieving recovery.

Incomprehensible as it is to me, addiction treatment, is largely still siloed and separated from other mental illness help.

Now, I’m a middle-aged, middle class, white woman in Canada. I am still very lucky and that luck is part of the reason why I have fared so well.

Others are not so fortunate. The social and economic inequities many individuals face, have a powerfully negative effect on mental health. Long lasting and intractable at times.

It’s not a fair fight for them. As such recovery is more difficult. 

I’m also lucky because my conditions responded to treatment well – medication and different forms of therapies and lifestyle changes. Yes, I put effort into my recovery.

But, effort and trying alone does not determine if recovery happens. I know people who try really, really, REALLY hard and are very proactive in their mental health yet wellness eludes them, through no fault of their own. These illnesses are confounding.

Every person who has mental illness and everyone who loves someone with a mental illness has a story that is unique and important.

This is a very brief description of mine.

Warning: humour ahead. The humour I use is not to minimize the very real suffering that mental illness causes. Humour is one of my wellness tools. Feel free to laugh along with me and about me.

I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder with psychosis, generalized anxiety disorder, mild temporal lobe epilepsy and an eating disorder when I was 25. Not really something you run and put on your resume under achievements. Well, actually, nowadays I do.

I didn’t initially embrace the idea of having a mental illness.

No, I flat out denied it, for 5 years. Even after four psych ward stays, multiple suicidal depressions, psychotic episodes, countless manias. Even after having to move in with my parents, losing my car, career, friends and money.

Even after running down the street naked in a psychosis, I wouldn’t accept I had a mental illness.

Eventually however, I did. With the guidance of caring (and extremely patient) parents and healthcare professionals and friends and support groups and peers, I did.

But it was still another journey of 5 more years to get back on my feet living independently, working,  enjoying the company of friends and in a loving relationship.

I laugh when I think of how life works. I would never have the career I do, had I not gone crazy in the first place!

I was originally trained as an actor. But my career derailed – untreated mental illness has a way of doing that. When I returned to work, I got a job as a receptionist. It was good, stable and healthy.

But, I craved more creativity in my life. I needed creativity in my life.

I started writing about my experiences. I submitted to a disability arts festival to “read from my book”. I was accepted. But, I didn’t a have a book. I didn’t even have excerpts.

So, I got to work, and wrote. Wrote not a book, but a monologue for the stage. Acting was what I knew. People liked it and asked “Is it part of a one-person stage show?” I said “Sure.” Ummm.. it wasn’t, but I know opportunity when it knocks.

From there I wrote a full keynote show. I started presenting it at organizations and conferences locally, then across North America, then internationally.

Since then I’ve written four more theatrical keynotes. Now I have a career speaking about mental health, smashing stigma, and leading wellness and creativity workshops .

I love what I do. I get to talk openly about what I used to be ashamed of. People want to hear about it. People want to feel comfortable talking about mental health. When I share my story and I see faces in the audience nodding in agreement back, it’s like finding brothers and sisters I never knew I had. And for an only child, that’s pretty cool.

Staying well is an ongoing process. I don’t take my mental health for granted. I can’t. I need to do certain things everyday to stay well. Exercise, meditate, take medication, eat well, sleep enough – to name a few.

My life is very different from what it was when I struggled with severe depression, suicide, anxiety, psychosis and my eating disorder. It’s taken a long time but I’ve got pretty good at managing my conditions. But, I’m always learning.

Now my focus is on healing, creativity, flourishing and gratitude. It’s also about sharing those things with others.

What is your story? Send me an email or comment below and let me know.

© Victoria Maxwell

Every month I receive emails from parents (just like you perhaps) of adult children who have serious mental illness. You tell me many things, but the one on which you all agree is how painful it is to see your son or daughter in anguish yet at the same time not accept help. She’s angry with you, blames you, yells at you, yet needs your help desperately. You tell me how helpless, how lost and how hopeless you feel. It is a journey of great pain. But there is also great hope. I know. My parents were on this very same journey. For 5 years, I was in and out of the hospital because of psychotic episodes. I not only refused help but refused to accept the diagnosis of bipolar disorder with psychosis and generalized anxiety disorder.

“H.O.P.E.: Hang On Pain Ends” ~ Unknown

There are myriad reasons a person refuses treatment. They can (and for me did) include: denial, anosognosia1 (ie: the inability to recognize you are ill), shame, emotional overwhelm, stigma, lack of access to good treatment, insufficient education about mental illness, fear of change and lack of skills or support to move through change.

But there are steps you as a parent or support person can take, at least initially, if you are facing this situation.  The suggestions may help you feel a little less powerless, a little less alone and a little more hopeful.

Know this: change is inevitable, recovery is possible and your adult child can get her life back; maybe not the exact life she had before she got ill, but a life worth living.

 

“Recovery is a way of living a satisfying, hopeful and contributing life, even with the limitations caused by illness…(it’s developing) new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness.” ~ Bill Anthony

 

I’m not a parent of someone who has a mental illness. But I am someone who saw what my parents went through as I struggled to make sense of my own psychiatric disorders and find my road to recovery. (On this  previous post on my Psychology Today blog my dad offers advice to parents trying to help their adult child. This post describes strategies to help someone with a mental illness who doesn’t want help.)

This is not only your adult child’s journey, the entire family embarks on it together. Mental illness becomes a whole family condition – chaotic and frightening. You know this.

But I also know this:

  • You can do it. But you can’t do it alone.
  • You can’t change your loved one. But things will change.
  • Recovery (for the adult child AND family) is possible.

Here are seven suggestions to help make your current difficult situation a little more tenable.

7 Steps for Parents who Love an Adult Child with Mental Illness

1. Stop the power struggles with (or judgements you have) of your daughter or son.

How do you do this? Listen to what your adult child is telling you. Don’t correct her, don’t try to change her or convince her. Just listen. Summarize what you hear her saying. Just because you are listening and reflecting back what she says, does NOT mean you agree with her. It does mean you are doing everything you can to understand her and her experience.

Like anyone, someone with mental illness wants to be heard, wants to be understood. And frequently for someone with a mental illness, this doesn’t happen. Really understanding what she is feeling (ie: empathizing) can rebuild trust. It’s not easy. Believe me. But it can build bridges where bridges were previously imploded. Check Dr. Amador’s website and book (I Don’t Need Help! I’m Not Sick) for more instructions on what it means to empathize and actively listen.

2. Remind her (and yourself) you are both on the same team.

But don’t just tell her, show her. Show her by working collaboratively: listen without an agenda; partner in decision making, set boundaries when necessary. Telling your adult child what she needs, what she should do, or what YOU know will help her will only make her dig her heels in more. You’ve probably already experienced this.

3. Recognize you might not be the best person to help her.

It may not be fruitful to say you are on the same team. Sometimes there’s too much animosity, so much trust broken (on both sides) that your adult child only see you (at the moment) as an enemy. Because of the current (yet temporary) volatile nature of the relationship it may be best to find out who, if anyone, she does connect well with. Is there someone who she will listen to; who she does trust or confide in? That person needs to be someone who has her best interest at heart (obviously), not someone who enables her or aggravates the situation. For example, not a person who she drinks with or who encourages her to believe you are an interfering parent.  A close friend, a trusted Uncle, a former teacher she admires, are options.

4. Ask your adult child what she needs to feel safe.

She may not know. She may not be able or want to calm herself down in order to express what she needs. It may be about helping her learn to calm her anger. Is she willing to go to counselling , not for mental illness but to sort out some life dilemmas; to solve some issues or secure some essential basics (housing, sleep, friends). Even if she blames everyone else for her problems, you can mention counselling can be a place to talk about that. And with that, a good therapist can help her gain insight and learn problem solving skills.

5. Let her know you are there for her.

Sometimes the only thing left to do (but also the most important) is letting her know you are there and not going anywhere. When or if she wants to reach out, you’ll be there, without judgement, with love and curiosity.

The most important element for me was to know that my parents (even as I pushed them away and argued with them), loved me unconditionally, and would be there. They might not like how I was behaving, but I knew they loved who I was. Even as I refused their help there was a part of my consciousness, a part of my soul that heard them, that registered how much they cared. This is true for your son or daughter.

6. Set boundaries.

You do not need to nor should you tolerate verbal or physical abuse (nor should your adult child). You may have to say ‘I love you. I’m here if you want help, but I will not allow you to berate me (yell at me, swear at me, threaten me etc). It might be about giving her space, you taking space or telling her she’s needs to leave. Always ensure she is safe and not at risk of suicide or harming someone else.  If she is at risk, then taking her to the emergency ward (or in the worst case scenario, the calling the ambulance or police) will be necessary.

For further excellent strategies watch Dr. Lloyd Sederer’s Chief Medical Officer, NY Office of Mental Health video ‘When mental illness enters the family’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRO0-JXuFMY

7. Don’t do this on your own.

Make sure you get help for yourself. The old airplane emergency adage applies: take care of yourself first, before you help someone else. You are no good to anyone if you are overwhelmed. There are other families willing to help and talk with you. Find a support group for parents of someone with a mental illness. The expertise in those rooms is invaluable, life saving even. Check with your local mental health clinics, your doctor, your community resources and local mental health organizations (DBSA, CMHA, SSC, NAMI)2. These connect you with people who have similar challenges, link you to community resources, and offer you emotional support and encouragement. The resources and support groups are usually offered at no charge.

This path may be long. It may be arduous. But it gets better. It’s not your fault. There is help. There is hope. You are not alone.

Please email me with your own strategies and feedback about my suggestions. I’d like to put them into a future post (anonymously of course, if you wish) because there is strength in numbers and wisdom comes from diverse and multiple perspectives.

© Victoria Maxwell

  1. If you’d like more information about anosognosia please watch this video which includes a talk from Dr. Xavier Amador, an expert in the area.
  2. Depending on where you are located, check with your local Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) or National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter or if you are in Canada: your Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) or Schizophrenia Society of Canada (SSC) branch.  The SSC helps families dealing with ALL types of mental illness.