mental illness

10 Ways to Survive the Diagnosis of Mental Illness in a Loved One

You always knew in your heart that your brother/mother/spouse/child was not doing okay. But you had so hoped it would be stress, the flu lack of sleep…anything else than this…a diagnosis of a serious mental illness. What do you do?

1) Verify the source.
Make sure the person who is making the diagnosis is qualified and knowledgeable. A licensed psychiatrist or psychologist is someone you can trust with their opinion on this issue. Anyone else, however well meaning, may not be qualified.
2) Sit with the feeling
When danger looms, fight or flight takes over and we want to spring into action. Instead, force yourself to just sit with the discomfort, let yourself feel what you’re feeling. Use your physical senses: focus on the feel of the chair against your legs, or the wall against your back. Notice how thoughts come and go, changing every instant. Just sit and breathe for a few minutes. Allow yourself to grieve. Cry if you need to.
3) Remind yourself that a diagnosis is not the whole person.
Just like cancer or diabetes is not the whole person, bipolar illness or schizophrenia can never describe your loved one fully. He/She is still a complex mix of other human traits and memories. If your spouse is the comedian of the family, this diagnosis cannot take that away. If your child is a good chef, he/she will continue to be one.

4) A diagnosis often brings a sense of relief to the patient.
When my brother was diagnosed with a SMI, I was devastated. Until he told me how glad he was to finally have a name to his struggles, to know there were other people out there with his symptoms, to know there was treatment and hope. I realized he didn’t want my pity, he wanted my support.

5) Help him/her make short term and long term goals.
Once your loved one has begun appropriate treatment, help them sort out their own short term and long term goals.
Some useful short term goals might be:
How do I know if treatment is working for me? What symptoms do I want immediate relief from? How do I monitor side effects? How can my I let my loved ones know when I’m struggling? How would I like to spend my time? Would support groups help? Therapy? Yoga? How do I continue to do things I love?
Some useful long term goals to discuss:

How does this impact my health/career/marriage/decision to have kids? How can I monitor progress? How can I engage in treatment most effectively? How can I accept this without letting it define me entirely?

6) Ask specific questions on what would/ would not be helpful

In spite of the diagnosis, in fact because of it, it’s important to remember he/she is still an autonomous capable adult (unless deemed otherwise by law or a physician). Always treat them like one. Ask what helps and do more of that. Ask what hinders and do less of it.
7) Worrying about yourself is not selfishness!
Give yourself permission to talk to your physician or therapist about what this means for you. It’s okay to worry. Make a list of your questions, choose an expert you trust, and ask. Once you have your answers, write them down somewhere safe and put it away. Remind yourself your concerns are valid and they have answers which you can read at anytime.

8) Create your own support system.
This is not a hundred meter dash, it’s a marathon. You need stamina, regular breaks, hydration, practice and a sense of humor. Some days will be good, other days- not so much. Make time for people, places and things that bring you joy. Introduce small moments of bliss into every day.

9) Don’t neglect your other relationships.
Your friends, kids, pets…make time for and celebrate your important relationships. Life is a long ride, and whoever is in it with you, deserves your attention too. Plus, it’s easier to give love unconditionally when you have received it unconditionally.

10) Perspective helps.
Life is a great equalizer. For everything we lose, we gain something and vice versa. Remind yourself of other rough times you have survived. Do your best, then sit back and let life unfold as it will.

The journey is more important than the destination.
Dr.Kavetha Sundaramoorthy (aka Dr.S) is a board certified psychiatrist, trained in both adult and child/adolescent psychiatry. She is also a writer, passionate about mental health, inner strength and mindfulness; and blogs on these topics at

5 Responses to 10 Ways to Survive the Diagnosis of Mental Illness in a Loved One

  1. Mythosopher says:

    “Survive”? Wow, it’s not as if mental illness is stigmatized enough as it is. Why not have a licensed psychiatrist write an article on a popular blog that does it even more by using rhetoric that makes it as if family members and friends are “fatally” burdened by their loved one’s diagnosis? I’m sure that will really make things better.

    Shameful. A licensed mental health specialist should know better than this. Absolutely shameful.

  2. I think your last point is especially valid, and applies to all areas of life. Perspective is everything. We are the one’s who decide how we respond to hardship. We can choose to let it stop us in our tracks, or we can choose to keep going forward.

    When it comes to supporting a loved one with a medical condition, we should only ever choose to go forward.


  3. Cassandra James says:

    I thought that was BEAUTIFULLY written. A support system along with a transformative philosophy made the difference between suicide and life for me.

  4. Kerry says:

    I’m with Mythosopher in general.  Here are my comments:
    According to the online dictionary, “diagnosis” means (in the medical sense): that the nature and circumstances of a diseased condition are determined and a decision is reached. 

    It’s just that, unlike other areas of the body, we are subjectively aware of what happens in our minds.  The question is – who is the best person to decide what the nature and circumstances of one’s mind are?  If the diagnosis the medical practitioner comes up with is one word, how much information does that really convey?  Is a word a decision?  The person who is experiencing the symptoms is likely capable of conveying, through word or deed, a multitude of nuances on the exact nature of their mental state.  And, like it or not, they are probably making decisions too – lots of them, in real time.

    There are probably a great variety of emotions that would be experienced by those whose loved one has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness.  Grief is just the tip of the iceberg.  It’s not just the person you’ve known your whole life you need to interact with.  Now you’ve introduced to a worldwide system of pharmaceutical companies, doctors who think that informed consent (not wholehearted enthusiasm, just consent) is a great leap forward from professional paternalism, and police/hospitals/law courts who, along with the psychiatrists, don’t necessarily even believe in consent by the patient at all, informed or otherwise.

    In regards to the person being a whole person, not just a diagnosis, that’s true.  But don’t rely on the patient still being a great chef or comedian once they’ve been “treated”.  The psychiatrist, in my experience, will not respect the intelligence of the patient or their family by informing them about the vast body of research and competing opinions about these illnesses.  Instead, the psychiatrist will treat them to a trite overview (sorry, time-effective directive) about what’s going to happen next.

    It’s true that it can be comforting to know that there are other people with symptoms just like yours.  But where does true hope come from?  Not from a secondhand belief system. 

  5. Dominykas says:

    Very good advices thank you

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