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Are you caring for — or just caring about — a relative or friend with mental illness? Though symptoms vary widely, the steps you need to take to cope are very similar for most mental illnesses. Here are some tips.

"We don't get to have a 'normal' family life and it took a lot to get over the disappointment. Still, with medication and therapy, my husband is doing really well."

"Having a professional to consult with so it's not all on your shoulders is key."

"When she forgets to take her medication and the symptoms return, it's hard."

"We all know he's like a bomb waiting to go off, since 'there's nothing wrong with him' and he isn't taking medication."

These snapshots of life as a support person to someone with mental illness are brief, but telling. Having a mental illness — as roughly 54 million people in the US alone do, in any given year — is hard. Caring for, or just caring about, a close friend or relative with mental health issues as diverse as severe depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder can be every bit as taxing. You'll want to do right by your loved one, to be there for them, but staying "sane" during the process may prove to be quite a challenge. Just how do you cope?

Acknowledging Your Feelings

Society, we all know, still attaches a huge stigma to mental illness — despite the fact that it is every bit as real as physical illness, and that it can have a huge impact on both the people suffering from mental illness and their loved ones. As a support person, someone who cares deeply for your friend or relative, you're going to want to be there for them. You are going to want to be non-judgmental in a sea of judgment. That may not prove to be easy, and you may find yourself having all kinds of feelings you wish you didn't have. 

Feelings come involuntarily, and there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that you do have the feelings you have.

It's OK to wish you didn't have to worry about your loved one all the time, to wish they were not affected by their disorder, and to wish your life was normal. As you acknowledge your feelings, do remember that nobody chooses to have a mental illness.

Reaching Out For Support

People affected by mental illness need support, and you are a key part of your loved one's support system. As you provide care and support, it is completely normal to be overwhelmed by the situation. Support people need support, too. Joining a support group for people whose relatives and close friends have mental illness can provide a safe haven in your life. Within support groups, you will hopefully find that you are able to discuss your feelings and your struggles openly with people who understand what you are going through.

Going to counseling with a licensed therapist is another step you will want to consider taking. Not only will you be able to vent safely in therapy sessions, you may also gain invaluable tips on how to deal with the symptoms of your loved one's mental illness from a good therapist. Indeed, caring for or supporting someone affected by mental illness can induce mental illness: long-term support people may end up with depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder. Knowing that you are at risk, seeking counseling is a very wise thing to do.

Depending on the nature of your loved one's mental illness, you will probably want to keep the fact that you are seeking help for yourself private. 

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