December 15, 2012

How Can We Help Loved Ones with Mental Illness?

In the wake of horrific senselessness, we often look for a collective lesson so that we can all heal, knowing that the entire world is somehow safer in the aftermath of such tragedy.

So how do we work together towards a safer world, one where we help prevent family members and friends from losing it, and in the worst imaginable scenario, taking others along with them?

How best can we help our friends and loved ones?

This seems as good of a time as any to raise questions about the growing conflict that governs how we treat mental health issues in our current age.

Some folks say we can’t save anyone but ourselves. I’ll beg to differ.

What Causes “Crazy”?

As a psychology major, I was made aware of two major paradigms within the mental health field. For the sake of this article, we can call them the medication model and the trauma model.

In the medication model, heredity of mental diseases is trumpeted, and people are said to be in pain because of a chemical imbalance.

In this model, people are just born faulty based on mutation/evolution, and they need these magical drugs to fix them.

This is in stark contrast to the trauma model, in which we unsuccessfully cope with a horrible situation in our lives and because of it, we are changed. These coping patterns were utilized because we didn’t yet have the skills necessary to deal with our issues in a better way.

The funny thing about the trauma model is that these disadvantageous learned behaviors actually get transferred, either as is or in an evolved form, from generation to generation within a family. Talk about bad karma.

No Bandaids, Let’s Take Out the Bullet.

The important difference between these two models is that one presupposes that we cannot help anyone unless we drug them, while the other says that things like compassion, listening, teaching new skills or changing our minds and actions towards a realistically empowered state may help us feel comfort and heal.

In one model, we have broken people, in the other we’re just hurt.

The Ritalin Kid Gets Depressed.

To bring this home, according to some, I’ve had mental illness my whole life. They couldn’t calm me down. I was this energetic but sensitive boy that just couldn’t seem to pay attention to anything that didn’t interest him.

That went on until they got me to feel bad about not being interested in the things they wanted me to be interested in, and told me that the amphetamines would make it all better.

Things progressed over the years. I was less and less socially confident (perhaps a side effect of being constantly high on speed and being told that the things that were important to me were not the important things in the world), but otherwise, I fit into the mold they wanted me in. I took the drug from middle school all through high school, and again during college, when I shifted to medicating as needed while cramming for certain tests.

But then I started taking these psychology classes that taught me about the different models and medications, and I began to open my eyes to all of the ills done in the name of progress by all these corporations that I bought things from. Man, did that get me depressed.

They tried to give me drugs again, this time anti-depressants, and I fought back, but I knew something was wrong. I took them for about a month or two—until things got even worse. I didn’t even feel human anymore. My emotions were starting to fade.

That’s when I started yoga, and slowly but surely found a way to tap into the things that I cared about—healing myself and others and working for the world that I truly believed in.

That’s when I started believing that everyone can heal.

So What Have I Learned?

I know I can’t speak for everyone, but many of my most profound breakthroughs have come with those who are compassionate enough to sit and listen to me spin my wheels, offering back love and encouragement without judgement—people that give me the space to be okay while I’m hurt.

They aren’t necessarily doctors, in fact, for me, most were not.

Most times I seek insight by talking to other people that had been through similar circumstances before, never settling with their answers until they feel right in my heart. If someone else has made it through, certainly they could help me do it, too.

I would spin my wheels about corporations, spin my wheels about medications, spin my wheels about society—and they would sit there and slowly help me see that it will all be okay.

I remember one day, someone told me that the only way to be happy with the world is to live the right example, and though my good works, change what I can. They told me other people were doing it too. That made me really happy.

So How Can We Help Someone That Seems To Need It?

First thing, it’s important not to make a loved one feel crazy. So first, remove that way of thinking, and instead look to see a hurt person. It’s hard for us all to open up to someone if we feel like we’ll just be judged by them. Help your loved one realize that these thoughts and behaviors are quite normal in this day and age, and that many very happy people have at one time or another had them too.

That doesn’t make them any less capable, it just means that your friend too can learn how to overcome this situation.

Next, invite your friend or family member to do things they love. If they truly can’t get out of their head enough to do something that they used to love (I know that I’ve been there before)—find something they will do. I remember my buddy Mike coming over for foosball and jazz music almost every week.

Next, find out more about what they really care about, and why they’re feeling that way. People don’t always open up right away, and sometimes you have to be gentle, intuitive and strong to help. Sometimes you even have to just be silent and hold them in a loving space.

In opening up, we can learn what we’re really angry at. I thought I was mad at corporations, but really I was just mad at the way our world was being treated. So when someone helped me see that I was part of breaking that cycle, I began to work to shift blame to a confident self-responsibility.

We need to keep ourselves calm. Instead of judging our loved ones, we can ask questions that expand their thinking to include a more universally healthy and empowered state.

Find out who the “bad guys” are, and see if you can help them remove these influences, or negate these influences with better coping strategies.

Most important for me, I found, was getting into a relaxed breath, relaxed mind and relaxed heart. Racing thoughts and a calm mind can’t coexist.

Take them to a yoga class or anything else that may get them in their body. Perhaps go swimming, or play some basketball.

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to get back into your body when you haven’t been there for a while, so massage is good, and sometimes even starting by getting people out of their head and into just…something else, is a good start.

Do all that you can to help them loosen up, show them that you’re on their side, that you see that they’re not feeling well, and that you want to help them get better on their terms.

Help them do those things that would make them feel better about their place in the world. I went away to live at an Ashram for a year so that I could get strong and have enough time to think about how I would make my changes.

There are multiple types of treatment and therapy out there, and many of us are in the field of healing.

The important thing is to not force anything upon anyone ever. Opening hearts is just like opening a hamstring—we have to use attention, awareness and love.

Have any other strategies for getting through to a friend that doesn’t seem to want help? Please share them as a reply to this blog post. All of our experiences taken together can help us all become more completely healed healers.


Ed: Kate B.

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