Helping a Loved One Struggling with Mental Health or Addiction Issues

February 28, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Patrick M. Kane, M.D. contributes to topics such as Behavioral Health.

By Steve Bove

Love isn’t always easy or perfect. Sure there will be ups and downs, and it’s hard work to make any relationship last for the long haul. Sometimes it requires navigating through rough times that you never imagined.

Some of the roughest times may be when a loved one is struggling with mental health and/or addiction issues – how do you help? Where do you start?

“Loved ones can sometimes be in the best position to help someone struggling with a mental health or addiction issue,” says Dr. Patrick Kane, psychiatrist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. As is often the case in relationships, communication is key, continues Dr. Kane, “but there is a delicate balance for those closest to provide a supportive path to care, separating the person from their illness, and supporting but not enabling”. Here are some fundamentals to remember as you initiate that difficult conversation.

Lead With Kindness & Compassion

This may seem obvious, but to someone lost in the darkness of mental illness and/or addiction, a little added kindness could make all the difference. So instead of approaching them with more of the same concerns or even open frustration, flip the script and try to brighten their day with a little compassion. Let them know you accept them as a person – even if you don’t always accept their behavior. Tell them that you’ll stand by them, no matter how severe their addiction/mental health issues.

Listen. Don’t judge.

A loved one is more likely to confide in you if you listen without interrupting or criticizing. You don’t need to understand or manage their illness, but you can empower them to take a leap of faith and seek care.

Set Boundaries (And Stick to Them)

You can be supportive without enabling or accepting behavior that is harming themselves and affecting everyone around them. Hold your loved one accountable for managing their illness. Help them find the support/treatment they need, but reinforce that it’s up to them to embrace change and that is often putting one foot in front of the other.

It’s Difficult, but Don’t Push Them Away

Loving somebody suffering from mental illness or addiction isn’t easy. It can make you feel frustrated, angry and disappointed. Don’t let those feelings lead to friction that will push them away – keep your heart open even when it’s hard to do. Don’t become discouraged or overwhelmed, and be mindful of your own needs and limitations. Staying emotionally healthy and firmly grounded in reality will enable you to better support your loved one.

Remember, It’s Not Personal

Remind yourself that their mood and behaviors are symptoms of an illness. Your loved one probably doesn’t like how he or she is feeling or acting any more than you do.

Know and Accept Your Loved Ones’ Limitations. And Yours.

Living with mental illness or addiction can be frustrating and discouraging. Don’t exacerbate the situation by setting lofty expectations or even demands for change. Instead of expecting them to do things they’re incapable of, let them set their own standard, and work with them to set realistic, achievable steps toward improvement and recovery.

Walk the Walk.

Lead by example and communicate through your actions as well as your words. Remain consistent and let them know you are willing to support them by changing your behavior as well. Help them locate treatment/recovery centers and attend support meetings with them as often as possible. The strongest message they may need is that they are not alone, and you will walk the path toward wellness by their side every step of the way.

Next steps?