How to Support a Loved One With a Newly Diangosed Mental Illness

By Tanya J Peterson

A loved one’s diagnosis of mental illness can send waves of confusion and fear through the entire family. The confusion and fear are actually a love-based reaction. When mental illness is unknown territory, it’s natural to be afraid of exploring it without causing harm.

Take, for example, a man named Isaac. He is a husband and a father. Isaac has been newly diagnosed with a serious mental illness called dissociative identity disorder (DID). His wife, Reese, is often unsure of how to handle it. She consults his psychiatrist after she tells Isaac something she’s learned about his past.

“Did I hurt Isaac more by telling him this? We have this pact to avoid secrets, but maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Reese is like so many family members and friends of those living with any mental illness. To want to help and support is a common desire. Equally common is a sense of anxiety, stress and sometimes even fear. When someone you care about is diagnosed with a mental illness, what can ensue is a period that feels like both relief and chaos.

A diagnosis can mean some answers are coming, an explanation of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that have been challenging. This can bring a sense of relief and hope. However, when it comes to a new diagnosis of a mental illness, answers quite often lead to a whole new boatload of questions. A prominent question is just how to support a loved one newly diagnosed with a mental illness.

Below are four ways to do just that. They come from experience, my own experience. In my experience as a nationally certified counselor, I’ve had conversations about this very challenge. In my experience as someone who received diagnoses of bipolar 1 disorder and various anxiety disorders, I know what family members and friends can do to be helpful and supportive. Without further ado, here are four ways to support a loved one newly diagnosed with a mental illness:

1. Be a team.

Your loved one is experiencing things within his/her brain that make life difficult at the moment, and he needs you. However, he’s still an independent person who needs to feel in control. Even if he’s a child or adolescent, he needs to know you trust him and that he has some decision-making power in his own care. Of course, you want to make sure he’s safe and has support making decisions.

This is where a team approach is helpful. Have an intentional discussion as a family. What are your goals, both as individuals and together? Allow everyone to express desires and concerns. Create a plan or even a contract around the issues of care and support that you all agree upon. Be patient with the process, as your loved one’s thoughts and behaviors might mean the process is slow, with stops and starts. (The patience principal applies to the other tips as well, of course.)

2. Have a beginner’s mind.

Called shoshin by Zen Buddhists, a beginner’s mind refers to approaching each situation, each day and even each moment within a day as a fresh start without expectations. This allows you to approach your loved one without judgement or too much emotion. It also opens your mind to learning new information about the mental illness and how it impacts her personally. Many community organizations, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) and more offer support groups and classes. Attending these can help you learn how to support your loved one.

Bibliotherapy, or healing and growing through reading books, is another way to use your beginner’s mind and help your loved one. Both nonfiction and fiction are valuable. Each provides information about mental illness in different ways. Fiction has the added bonus of allowing the reader to feel and experience through the characters what mental illness is like. It’s a powerful way to develop empathy and see how family members in the story support their loved ones. Characters, after all, represent real-world people. To build on the team approach, you can even create a family book club around specific books.

3. Understand your loved one’s illness from her perspective.

Learning about her diagnosis shows her you want to understand it. Additionally, learning about it from her perspective and how it impacts her personally shows her you want to understand her. An important first step to doing this is to accept the diagnosis. Commonly, well-meaning family members want to minimize the concept of mental illness to spare the loved one and the family in general the experience of facing stigma. However, indicating that you accept the diagnosis rather than denying it goes a long way in helping your loved one accept it, too, and with it, herself. Have casual conversations where you invite her to talk about what the diagnosis is like for her and how it’s affecting how she feels about herself and life. Just listening and accepting go a long way toward helping someone know things will be OK.

4. Focus on strengths.

This is a stressful time, and much attention is on what is wrong: mental illness rather than mental health; problems rather than triumphs; your own frustrations with yourself and the situation rather than on the strengths you bring to the table. Of course you can’t, and don’t want to, ignore your loved one’s symptoms. However, identifying and building strengths and using them to create positive experiences every day, even little ones, is a powerful way for all of you to live well beyond the mental illness.

In the above example, Reese doesn’t want to hurt her husband, Isaac. Isaac doesn’t want to hurt her, either. Yet, they are going through something stressful and difficult as they face Isaac’s diagnosis of DID. They happen to be characters in a novel called “Twenty-Four Shadows.” Their story is based on reality, on both my personal and professional life experience. From this experience, I attest that these four ways to support a loved one are indeed effective.

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