This article originally ran on LDS Living in June 2015.
If someone you love struggles with mental illness—whether it’s depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction, or another mental health challenge—life can be very difficult for them. But it can also be challenging for you and others who love them.
I read once that when one family member is mentally ill, it can be as if the whole family has a mental illness because establishing emotional equilibrium for everyone can be difficult. That being said, it’s important to keep in mind that no two situations are alike. For example, in some cases, the person with the mental illness has a strong awareness of their situation, which can be very helpful; however, in other situations, the person who is struggling may have limited or no awareness of their illness.
Whatever the case may be, when someone you love suffers from mental illness, it can be easy to neglect your own well-being, further intensifying an already challenging situation. If your loved one is struggling, give yourself (and them) a gift by taking good care of yourself. Such self-care will make life less stressful and will help you meet their needs.
Here are 12 suggestions to get you started:
1. Tap into the Power of Prayer.
Few things make someone feel less lonely in their struggles than a deep and consistent connection with Heavenly Father. Make your personal prayers a priority.
Roll onto your knees first thing every morning; connect with the one who will be there for you no matter what. Pour your heart out—your worries, your fears, and your anxieties about supporting your loved one. Tremendous spiritual power and comfort can come from consistently bookending our days with heartfelt prayers. And additional power can come from pausing to pray whenever needed.
2. Seek Spiritual Nourishment.
Loving and supporting someone who suffers from mental illness can be tremendously depleting, so make a commitment to nourish yourself spiritually. You will benefit, but so will those around you, especially your loved one.
A focused study of general conference talks and scriptural passages can be particularly helpful in your situation. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s October 2013 conference talk “Like a Broken Vessel” is a great place to begin.
3. Educate Yourself.
Learn everything you can about your loved one’s particular illness. Read a book, take a course, talk to a medical expert, and use reliable online resources such as the National Institute of Health. Learn how to speak with your loved one, how to set boundaries when needed, and how to encourage them to get the medical care they need.
The more you know and understand about your loved one’s particular challenges, the more of a help you can be to them. And that is good for both of you.
4. Find a Safe Place to Talk.
When someone you love is struggling, it helps to have another person you can talk to. Choose someone whom you can trust—someone who has your best interests and the best interests of your loved one at heart, whether a friend, bishop, or family member. Or perhaps it’s a therapist who could provide a listening ear as well as some helpful feedback.
It could also help to find a support group in your area for individuals whose loved ones are facing similar struggles. You might also consider using a journal as one of your safe places.
5. Make Positive Connections and Memories.
When times get particularly hard, the more pleasant parts of your relationship can easily end up neglected or even forgotten. Make a point of connecting with them in small, positive ways whenever possible.
Simple acts of love are good for them and for you because they bring a much-needed sense of normalcy to the relationship. You may not always know when the next challenging period will come, but you will both benefit—in good times and bad—from taking advantage of every opportunity for sharing sunshine.
6. Give Yourself a Break.
When things are tough, it’s easy to go into survival mode, doing whatever you can to help your loved one while keeping your own head above water. If you want to avoid burnout, or recover from it, give yourself some breaks to recharge. Your time-outs can be as simple as a good book, a movie, or lunch with a friend.
If your loved one is going through an especially difficult time, make sure that someone is available to help them as needed, so you can take your break without excessive worry or guilt. It can be hard to allow yourself to take such time, but take it, and take it regularly if possible because you’ll come back refreshed and more ready to support your loved one.
7. Choose Gratitude.
When things are difficult and you don’t know what the future holds, it’s easy to become discouraged. And while that’s natural, don’t allow yourself to become trapped by despair. Invite the light in through thoughtfully reflecting on the blessings in your life. This can be as simple as taking a couple of extra minutes in your prayers to give unrushed thanks for the things that are going well, writing what you’re thankful for in your journal, or perhaps penning a thank you note.
8. Eat for Emotional Equilibrium.
A diet heavy in empty calories sets one up for a rollercoaster ride of emotions, which is the last thing you need. Changing our diets for the better can help to change our emotional outlooks for the better.
Rather than trying to overhaul your diet all at once, consider making just one change a week. Soon you’ll find you’ve revamped your diet dramatically for the better.
9. Exercise to Stress Less.
Research shows that going for a walk or jog can make a tremendous difference in one’s stress level. If you don’t have that kind of time, even 10 minutes can have a positive impact. Exercise reduces the body’s stress hormone levels and stimulates the production of endorphins, which produce a feeling of relaxation and optimism. And who doesn’t need some of that, especially in stressful circumstances?
If you’re not exercising regularly, make a plan for how you can squeeze it in. Be creative. For example, put some energetic music on and hold an impromptu family dance. The whole family will be feeling better after some energizing fun.
10. Let Go of Others’ Judgments.
When someone has not experienced mental health challenges themselves or with a loved one, they sometimes lack compassion or are inadvertently hurtful. In one ward, a sister’s daughter was struggling. When a small group of women in the ward started gossiping about it, the sister took their judgments very personally, until one day she realized that those women did not know her or her child or what they were dealing with. But God did. And He saw a mother who was doing everything she could to love and nurture a child who was struggling tremendously.
Do not for one minute allow the judgments of others to determine who you are or who your loved one is. God knows who you are. And He knows who your loved one is. Trust in His love, guidance, and comfort as you continue to strive to do your best.
11. Help to Destigmatize Mental Illness.
Unfortunately, mental illness continues to carry a tremendously isolating stigma. Elyn Saks, a professor at USC Gould School of Law and one who has struggled with schizophrenia for more than 30 years, says, “People may blame the person, not realizing that mental illness is a no-fault brain disease that you can’t just will away.”
Whenever possible, stand up for people who struggle with mental illness, and educate others about the nature of such illnesses. The more that people understand mental illness, the more people will be able to be compassionate.
12. Create and Use a Gospel Toolkit.
Prayer and scripture study are essential tools to navigating tough times, but don’t stop there. Make a list of every possible gospel tool you can utilize in your circumstances, and use them often.
Be sure to include forgiveness, including forgiving your loved one and yourself when you make mistakes. Add fasting for the perspective and inspiration it can bring.
Include focused, thoughtful partaking of the sacrament as a powerful way to stay grounded from week to week. Add hope and faith. And be sure to include love, as you can never go wrong when you choose to act out of love. You may not always receive love back in the way you hoped, but you will know that you are loved in ways that will sustain you each and every day.
Debra Sansing Woods is the author of Mothering with Spiritual Power: Book of Mormon Inspirations for Raising a Righteous Family. You can visit her at debrawoods.com.