1.  The mental illness your spouse suffers with is something that is happening to your entire family. All are affected; it is nobody’s fault. It is not your spouse’s fault; it is not your fault; it is not your children’s fault. IT IS NOBODY’S FAULT. It is an unfortunate illness. It is NOT automatic grounds for divorce, any more than any other disability.

2.  You cannot fix your spouse. There is nothing you can do to make him well, so don’t feel compelled to try. You don’t have all the answers. All you can do is be supportive and loving (in a profound sense), and handle the everyday details and practical issues of life for him that he cannot cope with.

3.  All members of the family have a responsibility to cope with the illness. Escape is not a helpful way of dealing with the crisis. You all need each other.

4.  The ill spouse must recognize and accept the illness, be willing to receive treatment, and if possible, learn to manage the illness. She must cooperate with her medical team. She must take her medications. She must learn to recognize relapse symptoms. If the ill spouse is not willing to do these things, it may become impossible for the family to continue to support her. The family is not required to throw away their own lives for someone who refuses to cooperate. There are limits, and they must be enforced without feelings of guilt.

5.  Educate yourself concerning every aspect of the illness. Education brings compassion. Ignorance just encourages anger and fear.

6.  Grieve your loss. It is a great loss. The grief process for this illness is identical to the grief process for the death of a spouse. You need to allow yourself to experience the entire process of grieving.

7.  Get help for yourself to cope with this incredible challenge, either from your own counseling sessions or a NAMI support group. You can’t do it alone. With help, you can live life with gusto. Don’t refuse to recognize your own need for help just because the ill spouse is getting most of the attention. This illness is happening to your whole family. You should not try to do it alone.

8.  Help your children understand the illness as much as their age allows. NO FAMILY SECRETS! Don’t deny them the opportunity to learn about the illness, the unfair stigma attached to it, and to develop their own coping skills. It can be an incredible learning opportunity for them. If they need professional help to understand it and their own feelings, get it for them. 

9.  Try to create a safe environment for the spouse to express himself without feeling threatened, constrained or condemned. He desperately needs a nurturing, safe place to express the incredible frustration he is feeling about his illness.

10.  You and your children need to share your feelings honestly and openly. They are suffering a loss also. It’s okay to feel angry and cheated. At times you may feel embarrassed by the ill spouse’s behavior. Avoid trying to protect your spouse by not discussing the problem with family members or friends. Don’t require your children to conspire with you in a code of “Family Secrecy”. Family secrets will isolate you from others. Humor and openness will help the entire family, including your spouse, accept the illness for exactly what it is and reduce guilt for all family members. Remember that small children, by their very nature, assume that they are responsible for anything in their environment that goes wrong.

11.  Never put yourself or your children in physical danger. If you sense your spouse is becoming dangerous, you should leave and call for professional help. You should never tolerate abuse of you or your children! Say NO and mean it. Trust your instincts and intuitions on this.

12.  Become your spouse’s advocate with the medical professionals, assertively involved in her treatment and medication. Don’t be afraid to go with her to appointments, to call her psychiatrist if you suspect something isn’t right, or to inform the psychiatrist of the effects of the medication being prescribed. If the psychiatrist won’t cooperate with you, demand a different one. Stand your ground assertively, but try not to be a pain in the neck. Treatment should involve the entire family, so find a professional who will work with the whole family. You know more about your spouse’s illness than anyone else.

13.  Coldly assess what your spouse can and cannot handle, then compensate assertively. Most people with severe mental illness cannot handle money, some household chores, time commitments, relatives or too much stress. It is not uncommon for them to want to move all the time, searching for peace. You must not do things for your spouse that he can do for himself. Don’t rob him of his dignity. Recognize the imperative need to create some stability for your family, financially and otherwise. You will probably need to get a job and develop a career.

14.  Maintain your own identity. Resist becoming consumed with his illness. Life goes on and you have an obligation to yourself and your children to take care of yourself and meet your own needs. We all must continue to develop are a valuable human being, so don’t play the martyr role and sacrifice yourself.

15.  Always hope for healing. The medications do work and new ones are being developed. You may get your spouse back whole some day. If nothing else, the experience will broaden and deepen you in ways you never imagined. You can be a better person for it. Or you can choose to let it destroy you and your family. It is your choice.

16.  Keep in mind that bad things happen to almost anyone and you are no exception. You have not been singled out for special persecution. Trying to make good choices in life won’t protect you from misfortune. You haven’t been dumb to get yourself in this situation. IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Life is not easy. We have to take what we get and make the best of it. “Bloom where you are planted.”

 Principles of Support

  • We will see the individual first, not the illness.
  • We recognize that mental illnesses are brain disorders.
  • We aim for better coping skills.
  • We find strength in sharing experiences.
  • We reject stigma in ourselves and others.
  • We won’t judge anyone’s pain as less than our own.
  • We forgive ourselves and reject guilt.
  • We embrace humor as healthy.
  • We accept that we cannot resolve all problems.
  • We expect a better future in a realistic way.
  • We will never give up hope!

 Reprinted from NAMI of Missouri