To the Parents Trying to Get Through to a Mentally Ill Child

I receive correspondence from people dealing with a wide variety of issues relating to mental illness. One of the more common themes include parents, usually mothers, who are trying to figure out a way to make their adult child realize they need help and work toward recovery. I’ve talked to parents who have developed severe depression and anxiety, who have claimed strokes and heart attacks from the stress, who have gone so far as to take out additional mortgages to try and fund rehab, and far more.

In many cases, these parents have gone to mental health groups or counselors of their own. They’ve been told about the need and importance for boundaries; but feel that they can’t do these things to their child because of potential repercussions like violence, homelessness, self-harm, or suicide. All are very real possibilities when it comes to Bipolar Disorder and other volatile mental illnesses. That’s why it is vital to have the input and support of a qualified, licensed mental health professional. Being that I am not, it is not my place to tell you what you should do in that kind of situation other than seek professional help. Instead, I want to address the internal struggle of those parents.

On Waging the War…

I look at my mental wellness and my efforts in trying to help other mentally ill people and their loved ones in the context of fighting a war. You need a loose strategy that can be adapted as you push towards your goals. You need to have and manage resources. In war that includes troops, morale, weaponry, and money to keep the machine going. In mental health it’s professionals, your own emotional and health, therapy, medications, and money.

In war, you deploy your resources in a way that will push you closer to a victory. You do not want to arbitrarily waste your resources on battles that will not bring you closer to victory. In war, your troops may have advanced on and taken a hill. Intelligence indicates that a massive counter-attack is coming. Do you hold the hill? Does it serve a strategic importance to keep your troops on that hill and commit additional resources like air support and artillery to ensuring they hold it? Or is it a better idea to withdraw and let the enemy retake it so you can conserve resources and keep your troops in fresh, fighting shape for future actions?

In mental health, the wise will pick their battles in a similar way. You commit your resources when they have the greatest ability to make an impact and serve a strategic purpose. The most common piece of advice I give to people is don’t bother arguing with a Bipolar person who is manic. It serves little purpose. On the off-chance you actually do get through to the person in that moment, their instability can wipe out any perceived gains that you’ve made. What’s more likely to happen is you end up throwing fuel on the fires of their unwellness, anger them more, drive them further into instability. Then you have the emotional energy that you’ve expended in the form of your own anger, sadness, and frustration with the lack of meaningful gain.

In trying to get through to a mentally ill loved one, you must conserve your resources because it can take years for a person to not only realize they need help, but foster the desire to change their situation. You cannot sacrifice your mental and physical health, career, money, and home for someone who is not ready to help themselves. If you do, then you may not have those resources available five or ten years down the road when they could have been employed to make a real difference.

I Can’t Do What Is Suggested to My Child…

No one in this world is going to love your child as much as you do. No one. No one is going to put up with as much shit, sacrifice, or care as much as you do. What happens when you are no longer there? Will they end up on the streets? Will they commit suicide? Will they jump into a terrible relationship to just not be alone or on the streets? Will they turn to drugs or alcohol to escape? Maybe they are already doing those things now; but the difference is you are alive and reading this right now. That means you have the potential to be there for them and crack through the distorted perception that mental illness creates.

The boundary setting suggestions that mental health professionals make serve different purposes. Not only do they help you retain your sanity and well-being, but they also contribute to a controlled descent based on choice, whether that was the intention or not. Enforcing these boundaries forces the person to acknowledge that they have choices that will have repercussions. That helps to contribute to a controlled fall where hopefully the person won’t have to hit rock bottom to realize they need to change.

This is not something you are doing TO your child; this is something you are doing FOR your child. In following the recommendations of your mental health professionals, you are fighting the war FOR your child, which will hopefully push them towards the realization that they need to fight, too. Nobody accidentally recovers from a serious mental illness like Bipolar Disorder. Recovery is a major victory in a long-term war that requires a great deal of fighting, effort, and work. It is not something that can be handed to another person.

Your child, or loved one, is the only one who can truly help themselves. Enabling that person to realize it and that they have the strength to overcome will be two of the hardest fought, bloodiest battles in the war. Thus, you need to pace yourself to make sure your own life and well-being doesn’t get destroyed in the process. If the situation is so bad that your professional is suggesting extreme measures, you can’t tell yourself you can’t do them. You may not have a choice if you want to win the battle.


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6 Responses to To the Parents Trying to Get Through to a Mentally Ill Child

  1. Uno Hoo says:

    Hi again Dennis, as you know, I am the parent of an undiagnosed but extremely malfunctioning adult son who lives with me. I cannot turf him onto the street to teach him”tough love” because everyone he has loved has done this to him in the past, no doubt because of his mood swings, no hygiene etc etc. I am also terrified for his future when I die but every suggestion I offer him is ignored, albeit mostly nicely.
    He seems not to be depressed but is happy to have stability and myself and his brother around. I wish he would interact with my other kids but he does not leave the house.
    Anyway, you have heard all this before and nothing has worked thus far.
    My guess is as I lost custody of him to a violent man at age 5, he has felt abandoned all his life each time someone special cannot handle his crap and is terrified.
    Wish I could come up with a way to get him to dip his toes back in, so to speak

    • Dennis says:

      It’s an incredibly difficult situation. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to add that we haven’t already discussed.

  2. Julie says:

    Wonderful blog posts, Dennis, and I’m so appreciative of your endless efforts to support and educate people in great need of it. You’re simply amazing….
    My sweet, dear 26 y.o. Bipolar diagnosed nephew is back in the hospital after a two day discharge, so your comments and input are really timely and appreciated right now. My sister has severe anxiety issues and barely can cope with the emotional stress, our parents are 86 and I’m their go-to daughter. Nephew’s father has Huntingtons disease. So a big majority of responsibility is landing in my lap. As you can see tho, mental health issues are common in our family and my two adult sons have depression/anxiety and of course it didn’t skip me either. I guess I’m just the emotionally strongest one (on the surface!) Anyway, would love your thoughts on adult guardianship; not sure I can take in that role myself and fairly certain my sister can’t do it at all. Have been advised by lawyer friend to seek appointed guardian but doing the research now. My nephew has refused meds and refuses to believe he’s ill since becoming an adult; lots of self medicating and delusions/irrational thoughts are now rapidly getting worse. At least he’s safe for a few days at the hospital. Thanks in advance for your opinion.

    • Dennis says:

      Hello, Julie. Thank you for the kinds words on me and my work.

      Obligatory “not a lawyer” disclaimer. I would very much suggest that you discuss the situation more in-depth with an attorney.

      First thing is, you don’t make it clear who you would be seeking adult guardianship over? Do you mean your nephew?

      Because, if that’s the case, I don’t see how that can end well. First, I can’t see a court granting that request over someone in your nephew’s situation. There was a huge push for expansion of civil rights and oversight of mental health care after it was revealed how many institutions were absolutely horrible to their patients and how people were abusing the system. There really needs to be strong cause to even have someone involuntarily committed. I can’t imagine it’s much easier unless the nephew agrees to grant guardianship; which I can’t see happening if he absolutely refuses that nothing is wrong with him.

      Second, the power to force him in-patient isn’t likely to do any good. Even if you force a person in-patient, they can just go back to doing whatever they want to do once they’re out. Were I in your position, I would definitely assume that’s what he would do. You can’t force help on someone that doesn’t want it. You can’t help someone that doesn’t want to help themselves. That’s just the way it is.

      I would very much suggest talking to a lawyer about the situation though. At some point, you’re going to have to draw a line and a boundary to ensure that you won’t get sucked under and have your own well-being compromised by all of this stress and difficulty. It will suck you under as well. Be sure to take good care of yourself, first and foremost. If you feel like it will be too much, then don’t take it on. Your nephew’s path is his own. You can’t save him from himself.

      • Julie says:

        Thanks for your reply and suggestions, sorry for confusion in my post, I guess it wasn’t perfectly clear now that I read it. The guardianship idea was for my nephew, in Michigan each county has ones that the private court judge can appoint or you can request a certain one. My sister (his mom) struggles so much with panic disorder that she’s barely making it, and I’m hesitant to take on that responsibility myself due to mine and my own son’s issues, so I was exploring this option. According to my research so far the guardian helps with housing and job issues, tries to facilitate med compliance etc and helps coordinate emergency medical care among other things. I absolutely understand and agree with you that you can’t save someone from himself, and his continuing denial of his diagnosis and need for meds makes it more difficult. I guess each family has to go through the whole process of tough love and not enabling the disorder itself any longer, it’s just a difficult line to draw in the sand for someone you love and care about, no matter how determined you are to do the right thing. We’re getting there, though, and I sincerely appreciate your thoughts and encouragement.

        • Dennis says:

          It is a very difficult thing to face, especially when you have your own problems that need to be dealt with in the process. My personal opinion is that I wouldn’t take on trying to prop up his poor life choices in things like jobs and living situation at all. The way I had interpreted the situation is that it would be solely related to medical and hospitalization. You can’t take on the responsibility of living his life for him. You’re very welcome on the thoughts and encouragement.

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