How Can We Help Loved Ones with Mental Illness?

Via Jordan Epstein
on Dec 15, 2012
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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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About Jordan Epstein

Jordan is a lifelong learner, Entrepreneur, MC, life coach and business consultant. He works with clients seeking to unleash and become their greatest purpose, weaving themes from yoga, psychology, performance art, science and startup entrepreneurship.

If you are currently working to unleash your potential and would like professional support, email Jordan at [email protected]. You can learn more by checking him out at atjordanepstein or find him on facebook, twitter and instagram.


9 Responses to “How Can We Help Loved Ones with Mental Illness?”

  1. Kate says:


    Well said. Thank you for the suggestions. I like your writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Love & Peace,

    Kate Ogden

  2. jhepstein says:

    It's quite the pleasure Kate-

    If you have any experience here, or anything to add, please feel free!



  3. Erika says:

    I liked parts of this article, but you effectively demonize medication based on your experience. Yoga is helpful for many, but for some it will never be enough. For some people (myself included) medication is helpful & necessary to correct a real chemical imbalance. By suggesting that medication is superfluous or evil you may be discouraging people from getting the help they need to get on the right path. I genuinely believe this is dangerous. Please rethink this paragraph. Getting off meds was the right answer for you. For some people, meds may save their lives.

  4. Julie says:


    Kudos to you for writing this from your own experience and of what helped you. You touched on many great points. The one that stuck out for me was where you mentioned others giving you the space to be okay while you hurt…how amazing is that!

    I find in my own story while many have wanted to help, my pain made them uncomfortable. My healing has come (and still comes)from reconnecting mind, body and spirit on a conscious level. Being ever so mindful of others and understanding that if this “bad karma” doesn’t stop with me, that is all my kids will have the opportunity to learn…what a flippen terrifying thought!

    Again, kudos for not writing a “bullet point” list on how to help others heal. I believe that both the healing and the helping are

    processes…with a capital “P”


  5. jhepstein says:


    I'm glad you posted this reply – Kate B, our amazing editor and I were going back and forth on putting up a disclaimer, but realized that simply sharing my experience would start a healthy discussion around the different treatment paths and how they work. Sometimes it's too much for a blog post.

    What I advocate for is helping people on their own terms, giving loving space and acceptance, listening and, with time helping remove the existing thorns. So in keeping with that, I truly am glad the medicine works for you.

    For me, because it went against my beliefs, besides the physical effects, it made me feel even less capable, and even more broken. I knew I just needed to get myself more empowered in my thinking and acting – but I did need help.

    For me, my problem was depression – so I looked into the neurotransmitters that Science thought were linked, and did things to boost them naturally <a href="http://(” target=”_blank”>(

    Over time, however, I saw how important perspective was.

    The prevailing theory on the creation of emotions is the the James Lange Theory…here's a little on that:

    "According to this theory, you see an external stimulus that leads to a physiological reaction. Your emotional reaction is dependent upon how you interpret those physical reactions. For example, suppose you are walking in the woods and you see a grizzly bear. You begin to tremble and your heart begins to race. The James-Lange theory proposes that you will interpret your physical reactions and conclude that you are frightened ("I am trembling, therefore I am afraid")."

    What happens is, your brain sees something, or a situation happens – and it's our perception that then triggers an electromagnetic pulse (it's run thru your heart). This pulse then triggers the release of hormones which then effect the whole body – getting it ready for fight or flight, or perhaps calming it. (

    The important part here is – if you saw a bear in the woods, but you were a bear handler – you'd know that you need to stay calm, stand tall, and look like you're in charge. If the bear came at you, you'd know to yell loudly. All of this you can do without ever getting too "scared" because our emotions are dictated by our perceptions – and we all know those are dictated by our coping strategies – that's why we're yogis.

    So all I'm saying is… there is more than one way to skin a cat, or increase brain chemical levels. Habitual thought patterns, based on learned helplessness and a number of other improper coping mechanisms were the cause of my own screwy brain chemistry.

    So, in any event, to quote John Lennon "Whatever gets you through the night, is alright".

  6. jhepstein says:

    Julie- thanks so much for your reply!

    The funny thing was, I just followed the path of acceptance. A friend of mine took me to a yoga class in my college, I realized it helped me. Then I went to another yoga class, and then another…. and soon, I wanted to try new teachers, perhaps get some different perspective from those that didn't teach at my school.

    I went to a class with a woman who told me of this magical place where you can practice yoga every day and meditate. It was by following my own path to calm that I found others on the same path – some of whom have been doing it for a long, long time.

    Eventually, peer mentorship, brainstorming… all of these things opened up, once I knew that I had a practice that I could always go back to if things got really bad in my head. And when that didn't work, there was always the Grateful Dead American Beauty album. 😉

    I'd urge you to not be afraid of passing on bad karma – we have to step up and decide that we will do our best. And remember, kids are often smarter than their parents and realize what's going on. It's these karmas that make us human, and they're what we need to learn from, of course.

    Yes, Process!

    Let me know if you'd like to chat, I'm available on Skype. 🙂


  7. Adrienne says:

    Thoughtful and thought-provoking article, Jordan. Everything you suggest in helping/loving someone with a mental illness is great and also applicable to anyone seeking to be a better friend, partner, parent, lover, etc. I think that your suggestions could possibly be used by the person him/herself, i.e. what wouldI love to do, why am I so angry?

    I strongly believe, depending on the type and degree of mental health issue, that a combination of drug therapy and counseling, along with a healthy lifestyle, is the best treatment available to us. The problem with side effects from the medication is problematic but sometimes the good outweighs the bad. Maybe even changing medications can make a world of difference.

    And thank you for sharing your story; your openness and honesty is heart-warming! Brave soul.

    "I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity" -Edgar Allen Poe

  8. […] Despite the warnings, in 2008 the US Government Accountability Office reported that one in every 15 young adults 18-26 years old is now “seriously mentally ill.” […]