This is a problem I’ve been struggling with but I don’t know how to put it into words. When I phrase the question, it sounds heartless, but I don’t mean it to be. In fact, it’s a question that is heavy with heart and feeling.
And here it is: When you have a loved one with a mental illness, what is your obligation to them?
See. It sounds cold. It sounds like I’m asking because I don’t want to help them. But that’s not what I mean. What I mean is this…for most of my life, I have had a family member or loved one dealing with a severe mental illness. Mental illness seems to be all around me. My mom worked with the mentally ill. My dad worked for the VA. I have aunts and uncles who are social workers. I’ve read so many books on psychiatry and what happens when the mind fractures. But even though this information is all around me, I still don’t know what to do.
It seems simple. When someone you love has a mental illness, you take care of them, right? That’s should be the answer. You get them help. And sometimes that is enough. There is therapy and medication, and together they do work. But what if…what if there isn’t any real help for them? What if they won’t get better? What if you can’t afford the therapy or the medication? What if their illness causes them to hurt you? It’s not their fault, exactly, it’s the disease they have. But what if that disease causes them to be dangerous and abusive?
What if your spouse has a mental illness? You do anything you can to support them, yes? But what if that spouse’s mental illness causes them to be a danger to your children? Who do you choose to support? Do you support the spouse and expose your kids to danger? Or do you leave your spouse in the hopes that you can get custody of the kids, which you probably won’t? Who wins here?
What if you have a sibling with a mental illness and you want to help them but doing so puts your family at financial risk? Or having them in your home could put your children at risk? How do you help from a distance?
How do you support and love a family member who is struggling with psychological issues, but how do you do that in a way that is safe and healthy for you?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have tried to help those in my family who have struggled, but there are some mental illnesses that cannot be fixed. There is a lot of talk about accepting and supporting those who have these issues, and I so agree with that. But there’s something I don’t hear much about…and that’s the question of how do you support their caregivers or their children? How do you make sure they’re safe when there isn’t enough money? When you can’t send someone to a hospital for the long stay that they need?
I feel so powerless in this. And it’s a recurring issue in my life as I try to raise my kids in a healthy, positive way. I’ve had to be very firm on boundaries of what I can and can’t do to support loved ones, and it leaves me feeling a bit cold. A bit unfeeling. And that’s the other thing about having a family member with a severe mental illness. Sometimes, to help them, you have to be cold and unfeeling because any emotion you have can set them off. And so you start to freeze, bit by bit. But you have to do it, because it’s one way to keep yourself safe and to not set off any triggers for them.
It’s tragic, really. This question. When you have a loved one with mental illness, what is your obligation to them? My answer is…you do what you can, you love them, but you make sure you and your children are safe first. It might mean helping them with resources, but it might also mean walking away to protect yourself and your children. It certainly means some hard decisions, firm boundaries, and risking looking like you don’t care, even when you do.