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How to Approach a Struggling Family Member

Albeit mentally or physically, no one wants to see their loved ones suffer. Mental illness affects more than one person, as it affects the entire family unit. The worst part is that the signs and symptoms of mental illness aren’t always easy to diagnose. Some might write it off as having a bad day or that a family member is just being moody. If you suspect your loved one is struggling but aren’t sure how to approach them, here are a few ways you can help.

Understanding Mental Illness

Knowing how to help your family member starts with understanding how mental illness presents itself. Everyone is different, so one person may become more isolated and socially withdrawn. Another might do the complete opposite. They may start acting completely out of character and become more extroverted. They may exhibit extreme highs and lows, which rapidly cycle without provocation. It’s also important to note that mood fluctuations don’t necessarily mean they’re suffering from mental illness. Only a licensed professional can make a definitive diagnosis.

Warning Signs

Aside from someone acting and looking down or agitated far too often, there are other warning signs to keep in mind. More serious issues, like schizophrenia, usually don’t occur without warning. Most times, people closest to the person start to recognize something that just doesn’t seem right. Below is an abbreviated list that warrants further investigation:

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns: Appetite changes or sleep disturbances are not uncommon.
  • A decline in Function: Discontinuation of sports or previous social activities.
  • Trouble concentrating: Unable to focus on work or school.
  • Disordered thinking patterns: May start to think they have mystical powers.
  • Lack of motivation: Motivation to reach previous goals may disappear.
  • Paranoid behavior: May say they are being watched or followed.

It’s important to note that exhibiting one or two of the above symptoms doesn’t automatically mean having a mental illness. However, when the symptoms are ongoing or worsen, it does warrant further psychological evaluation. Family members who are depressed or mention that they would be better off dead need immediate intervention.

Starting the Conversation

Even though mental health issues can develop at any age, it’s not uncommon for various conditions to present themselves during college. The transition from high school to college can be stressful, so it’s not unusual for college students to experience anxiety and depression. However, during these formative years, more serious mental health issues, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, present as well. As a parent or sibling, it might be during this time that you want to approach the topic but aren’t sure how to go about it. Along with the emergency help through the college itself, there are also resources available on and off-campus, including a guide for supporting mental health in college students. You can use these resources to start the conversation and address your concerns. Use statements that exemplify how worried you’re about them.

Talking with family member
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It’s always best to avoid statements that sound accusatory or make your family member feel ashamed. For instance, instead of demanding they seek psychological counseling, you can suggest that you go together and speak with a mental health professional. Your goal of the conversation needs to be showing genuine concern and support, not chastising them for doing something wrong. While most people can’t clinically diagnose themselves, most are aware of behavioral changes that they’re exhibiting.

Educate Yourself and Family

Navigating a mental health diagnosis means learning more about the condition, all the possible treatments, and how you can offer support to your loved one. If other family members are old enough, they also need to understand the diagnosis and learn ways to be more supportive. Only use reputable sources when learning about the condition, as there can be plenty of misinformation available on the subject. Speak to clinical professionals who can provide you with valid online and offline information resources.

Take Time for Yourself

In addition to helping your family member receive appropriate treatment, you also need to take some time for yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s okay to seek out support from someone you trust. Many online support groups are specifically for family members.

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