Caring For Someone With Mental Illness Without Losing Yourself


Caring for somebody who is physically unable but mentally healthy isn’t a walk in the park, but how do you manage when a loved one may seem alright on the outside, but is suffering from one or more types of mental illnesses?

Mental illness does not manifest itself in the same ways for different people, and in others, can often cause a lack of motivation just to even get up from bed, practice basic hygiene, and in the most extreme cases, may even be suicidal.

Amy’s sister Karen* was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in their 20s, and now that they are both in their early 30s, it is often Amy who functions as her sister’s safety net.

“She doesn’t have a very large support network, since she tends to lose relationships or cut people off. She knows I am always there for her, whether we are on speaking terms or not,” she said.

Siblings are increasingly taking on this vital role in the well-being of people with mental illnesses, and offer up something more important that medical staff often do not have the time or emotional capacity to provide: compassionate daily support.

While researching into the condition of your loved one is a vital first step into understanding that some of the symptoms of mental illness patients; like sudden anger and becoming violent, are not entirely within their control, you shouldn’t forget to also take care of yourself along the way to avoid burning out.

Here are some top tips that experts recommend:

Keep an open dialogue about mental health, and understand your sibling’s symptoms

An open dialogue about mental illness can help families and loved ones provide better support to patients.

Understanding your sibling’s diagnosis and why certain behaviors occur is an important part of being compassionate, said Florence Leighton, a psychiatric nurse practitioner based in New York.

Check in on them when they’re isolating

People with mental illnesses can often feel the lack of motivation to just even get up to face the day and do basic things for themselves, like cook breakfast or take a shower. Check in on them when they haven’t reached out in a while.

Try not to get frustrated or angry about their symptoms

It is important to separate your loved one from their illness as they are not always in control of their behaviors.

When your sibling or loved one has an angry outburst for example, it helps to remember that your sibling is not a bad person, they are merely struggling in the management of their condition, said Leighton.

“By normalizing behaviors and separating the person from their actions, siblings can be incredibly understanding and decrease the guilt and shame a person feels after an incident,” she added.

Watching your tone can also help to de-escalate matters if you are out in a public space, and in situations where even your both your safety is at risk, 911 has a crisis management team trained for psychiatric cases.

Let go of your expectations

Keeping informed and learning about your loved one’s illness; and accepting that symptoms are different for every person is vital so that it keeps you from making expectations about how they “should” behave, lessening the strain on relationships if they do not behave according  to society’s standards.

Don’t isolate your children, they can be supportive too

Parents can foster a family culture of understanding by directing their children to express love or support for their mentally ill family members in developmentally appropriate ways, like drawing them a picture to show they care, or showing them their favorite toy or listening to music together.

Take care of yourself

If it means having to go see a psychologist for therapy, then so be it. Taking care of a sibling with mental illnesses is incredibly stressful as most of the time, it is their well-being taking up most of your concerns.

Talking with a professional or therapy peer groups about your own negative feelings and exhaustion can be a relief.

Set boundaries

You may feel guilty at first for not putting their needs first, but setting boundaries and limits can help you avoid feeling resentful towards your loved one, which helps no one at all.

Create alternatives for them to turn to if you aren’t around or immediately available, and Leighton adds that seeking out community resources, such as case management, transportation and day programs for your sibling “can help alleviate some burden associated with managing a sibling with mental illness.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness can help you contact groups in your area that help to manage families taking care of a member with a mental illness.


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