Human beings are social animals. We live in communities and in addition to our basic needs of clothing, shelter and food, we need strong bonds, of belongingness to go through the motions of life through good and bad times. In the case of a serious health issue affecting someone, the role of the family or caregiver needs no introduction. We need empathy, care and compassion in addition to medical interventions to take us through the illness. And if this illness happens to be related to your mind, a psychological one, the role of empathy, care, compassion and support from those around you becomes even more crucial in addition to medical aid.
Lets start with admitting that taking care of someone suffering from a mental disorders is a real challenge, on account of various reasons.
The lack of information and awareness about mental illness among society at large makes it a kind of dark mystery and leads to stigma and isolation, not only for the sufferer but for the family also. While we all have some experience with physical pain and thus have a collective agreed upon idea of it, our relationship with mental pain is very subjective and to be honest is that of denial to a large extent. In the case of a mental illness, it is very difficult to imagine and believe that a healthy looking person might be going through some pain. As a result, our empathy for someone with physical illness is far more than for someone with a mental illness.
The challenge of not being able to discuss a loved ones mental illness openly on account of the stigma attached just adds to the woes. A big effort goes in to keeping a cover. On top of that the healthcare system available for mental health is far from what is needed. The lack of available resources (information, facilities, psychiatrist, psychologists, counsellors, mental health care workers etc.) take the difficulties to the next level for caregivers.
We can honestly conclude that all these challenges make it very difficult for us, the so called ‘normal’ people, to understand the agony people with mental illness go through. When their own mind plays tricks on them, along with their own skewed perception of reality topped with the reaction of those around (of panic and fear) we must be as empathetic to them as we are for physically ill people.
Though taxing it might be, I still feel very strongly we should not give up on a loved one being forced to go through such a rough patch in life for no fault of their own. Addressing the needs of the caregiver is an integral part of the solution to mental illness. In order to continue to take care and not to give up on a loved one suffering from a mental disorder, you have to follow the same advice that is given in an aeroplane:
In the case of the pressure in the cabin falling, a mask will automatically fall from the cabin above your head, wear the mask over your head covering your nose and breathe, PLEASE WEAR YOUR OWN MASK BEFORE YOU TRY TO HELP A CHILD OR ANY OTHER PERSON.
The gist of the message is very clear. You can help someone (even your own child or parent) only when are in a position to do so. According to me this is where we lack maximally and slip. As a society we still do not understand our mental health and its needs fully and hence we falter while handling mental illness.