How To Respond To Someone With A Mental Illness

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

Two years ago, I completed the Family-to-Family 8-week course through the National Alliance of Mental Illness. If you have a loved one in your life with a mental health condition, I beg of you to take this class! First of all, the class is taught by people who have a loved one with a mental health condition too. Not only is it incredibly encouraging to learn from someone who has been in your shoes, but the information is invaluable. This class have been proven to significantly improve the coping and problem-solving abilities of the people closest to a person with a mental health condition. I can attest, firsthand, this class changed my life and my relationship with my schizophrenic mother.

I’m a reader, and I’ve read A LOT of books about mental health, but the information I leaned about mental illness in the Family-to-Family 8-week course was more informative, impactful, and useful than anything I have read or listened to in all my 30 years of living. I could go on for days about how healing, beneficial, eye-opening, and life-changing this course was, but today I want to share with you one of most beneficial things I learned in the class which is: how to respond to someone with a mental illness when they say something off the wall, unusual, or alarming.

The Top 5 Responses to Say to Someone with A Mental Illness:

1) I can't imagine how that feels.

2) That must be hard.

3) How does that make you feel?

4) Uh-huh.

5) Wow.

You’re probably looking at these responses and thinking what? This is how you want me to respond when my loved one talks about made up things or does something ridiculous like claiming The Dollar Tree sales the healthiest ground beef on the market. I'm sorry, but I can not get on board with eating packaged meat for a dollar, and I fear for the one who thinks this is remotely okay. Oh wait, that's my mother. So, you see I've been there, and I am still here to tell you that the 5 responses above are exactly how I want you to respond when the person you love with a mental illness does something like makes you hamburgers purchased with 99 pennies. Before I learned about the incredible list above, I use to react with a lot of heightened emotions toward my mother when she would say something jarring or I would try teach her, neither of which worked. Our conversations use to go like this...

A glimpse into our conversations BEFORE I had this list in my life

Conversation 1

Me -“Mom, your cat looks sick.”

Mom -“Oh, she’s not sick, she’s happy. I started feeding her coffee instead of water, and she loves it. Cats were made to drink coffee, Sarah.”

Me -"Your cat is going to die! What are you thinking? Are you out of your mind, Mom?”

Conversation 2

Mom -“My stomach hurts.”

Me -“What did you eat, Mom?”

Mom - “Just a few cookies.”

(I go to look in the kitchen)

Me -“Mom! You ate the entire box of Chips Ahoy and drank half a carton of milk! Do you want to get diabetes? Why do you do this to yourself? Why!”

Conversation 3

(I walk into mom’s apartment on a beautiful, sunny summer day to see every curtain closed, window shut, and light turned off. It looks like a séance has just taken place.)

Me -“Mom, what are you doing?” It’s beautiful outside. You need to open your curtains.” Mom -“Don’t open those curtains Sarah.”

Me -“You need sunshine, Mom.”

Mom -“Keep my curtains closed. It’s a sleep day.”

Me -“It’s 12pm, and you already slept for 12 hours.”

Mom -“A woman needs her beauty rest.”

Me - “You’ve had a lifetime of beauty rest. Now get out of bed and stop acting so depressed!”

If you’re wondering if my reactions gave my mother the kick in the pants to get out of bed, eat better, or treat her cat like a feline instead of a human, the answer is no. They didn’t. In fact, my reactions only created a further wedge between my mother and I . In addition to this, the more I visibly freaked out in front of my mom, the more absurd things she began to say and do. And the more absurd things she did and said, the more I FREAKED OUT! I hated getting on to mom. I just wanted to help her, but most of all, I missed her. I wanted the good parts of her personality to come back like her warm heart and fun-loving spirit. I missed all the parts of her that made her more of a mom and less of a patient. But after I completed the family-to-family class with NAMI, I decided to start using this list above to respond to my mom. This is how our conversations began to be...

A glimpse into our conversations AFTER I had this list in my life

Conversation 4

Me- “Did you have a good Valentines’ Day, Mom?”

Mom - “Yes, I feed my cat chocolate and she loved it!”

Me -“Wow.”

Conversation 5

Me -“How are you feeling today, mom?”

Mom -“My stomach hurts so I’m just going to have to sleep all day now.”

Me - “That must be hard.”

Conversation 6

Me -“Did you go swimming in your pool this week, Mom?”

Mom -“That pool is filled with nothing but fat whores.”

Me -“Uh-huh.” Mom -“The place is so depressing.”

Me -"I can't imagine how that feels."

It wasn’t easy for me to say these responses to my mother AT ALL! For starters, I hate when she tries to drown her pain in sugar. I hate when she sleeps the entire day away because her depression has won. And I really hate when she talks to her cat or calls perfectly nice strangers prostitutes. I so badly want her to be happy, healthy, and full of light, but (as my husband often has to remind me) I can’t parent my parent. So I committed to responding with 1 of the 5 phrases above and then something marvelous began to happen. Something I could never have imagined in a million years!

My mom let her guard down.

She began to open up to me.

We started talking about her feelings.

Her worries.

Her pain.

We laughed.

We actually laughed!

We told jokes without sitting on pins and needles.

The less I advised her how to improve her life, the more it began to improve.

The less I tried to parent her, the more responsible she became.

And, alas, I began to get my mom back.

How have you responded to your loved ones who have a mental health condition? How did these 5 responses work for you? I would love to hear about your experience in the comments below!