I receive a lot of inquiries from people asking for advice about living with mental illness, loving someone with a mental disorder, and doing ministry among people with mental illness and their families. I can’t offer the kind of advice and help a mental health professional can give, but I can point people in the direction of resources that might help them. And I can share some of the wisdom I have learned in countless conversations with people who have experience in similar situations. Sometimes it’s a matter of just introducing people to resources that are available. Sometimes it’s a matter of sharing my own personal experience and my own perspective.
Occasionally I share some of these interactions* here, for the benefit of others who may have similar questions.
Question: My sister has a history of serious mental health problems, and her symptoms have caused a lot of pain and sorrow for everyone around her. Her illness has also made her own life very hard, and I really want to help her. But she doesn’t want to go a professional, take medication, or attend a support group. In fact, she won’t even accept that she has an illness and needs help. She goes to church, but she won’t ask her church for help either. How can I help her see what she needs and convince her to get it?
Answer:I can imagine there’s a tremendous amount of pain and fear behind your questions, and in your relationship with your sister. It’s obvious you really care about her and want what’s best for her.
As you may know, I’m not a mental health professional, and I can’t give a lot of advice on that front. But I can give you a few ideas. I can also offer encouragement in the fact that you’re not alone–God is with you and many others have been where you are. You might find this article encouraging: When Mental Illness Comes Home.
Unfortunately, when a family member is resistant to help, or even to the idea that anything is wrong, the people who love the person are severely limited in their ability to offer help. We can’t legally force anyone to receive care, except when that person poses a danger to self or others. And treatment won’t be effective unless the person is motivated and ready to receive help. This can leave loved ones in an extremely frustrating, emotionally excruciating position. It can also leave us with no choice but to let go and let the person live, speaking the truth and praying and being there for them if they’re ready to seek help. This is not easy to do.
It may be appropriate for you to take a more active approach. Have you heard of mental health interventions? I believe they’re similar to addiction interventions, with a professional providing help to loved ones who want to help a person recognize a need for treatment and hopefully accept it. I don’t know enough about them to recommend a specific one, but you might consider doing a Google search and looking into this.
Regardless of whether that’s an option for you, the best recommendation I can make is for you to take care of yourself and to become the healthiest person, and family member, you can be. Families affected by serious mental illness, as with other forms of dysfunction, can develop unhealthy patterns that are hard to see but may serve to actually keep the person from seeking help and getting better. They may also keep everyone else functioning at a lower level than they’re capable of. If you become a stronger and healthier person, it’s possible everyone in your family may follow–including your sister. And if not, at least you have taken care of yourself and altered the impact you will have on other people in your life.
Keep in mind you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) go along with your sister’s version of the truth. You don’t have to convince her that she has a mental illness, but you don’t have to pretend she doesn’t, either. Stand firm in reality as you know it, don’t join her in hers. This may lead to conflict, but it can help you retain your own mental health, and it might actually help her get to a point where she realizes her life isn’t working and she needs help. You don’t have to argue or anything; just don’t buy into her perspective for the sake of peace.
Take care of yourself, take breaks, and draw boundaries (and be consistent with them). And when you do talk with your sister about her disorder, I encourage you to focus on the symptoms you see and how those symptoms affect you and other people. This is much more effective than saying something like “I think you have a problem” or “Something is wrong with you.”
You might also consider getting involved in a support group. Because of my family experience, I’m very aware of the strain serious mental illness can put on a family–and I also know a family can survive these trials. Support groups have been a tremendous help to my family. If there’s a NAMI chapter in your area, you can check with them for groups for family members. They might even have a group specifically for family members who love people who have issues similar to your sister’s.
You may also be able to find a Christian group. Here are a couple of places I recommend you check to see if they have groups in your area:
Another idea is to call the mental health department in your county and ask them what they can tell you about available resources. You might also try calling 211. This is a phone number that is available in some areas of the country, which will help connect people with human services available in their area.
I hope this is helpful. And I hope God will make himself very real and precious to you and will help you heal in a way that makes your pain something he can use. I know you grieve; please know that there are many others who grieve as you do, even though many feel alone. And Christ grieves with you–this is not the way we were made to live. Someday he will redeem us as only he can, and all his children will see and understand clearly and will be overwhelmed with his grace and with a joy we can’t imagine now.
*Question has been modified for the sake of brevity and to protect privacy.
© 2016 Amy Simpson.