Tom Smith, who lost his daughter to mental illness in 2003, explores mental health stigma and the heart of helping a struggling loved one.
Unconditional love lies at the heart of helping a loved one with mental health issues develop positive self-esteem. But as a society we are geared toward conditional love: in overt and subtle ways, we learn how to love on the condition that someone else’s behavior and attitudes meet our expectations.
But the delicate line between necessary, healthy expectations and conditional love is hard to identify and even more complicated to apply effectively. Parents, for example, generally expect that their children meet certain behavioral, educational, and social standards. At the same time, they strive to love their children unconditionally. It’s common to hear adults recalling their own childhood and testifying to their parents’ failure to separate their expressions of love from their performance or behavior expectations for the child. We don’t always learn unconditional love at home.
Through adolescence and into adulthood, we may not experience unconditional love, either. Competition at school, the workplace, in sports, in social circles, and even in entertainment and arts — all contribute to a society that constantly compares. Someone is “better” (which means someone else is “worse”), someone wins while others lose, some people presumably succeed and others fail. This message is everywhere — in popular media, in advertising, and in our language. We are expected to behave, think, and feel in particular ways, or be shunned, minimized, ignored, or condemned.
The stigma against mental illness thrives in this environment, unfortunately. Nor does this atmosphere promote learning how to love unconditionally. But loving unconditionally is precisely what family and friends of people with mental illness need to do.
How do we do this? Maintain a positive attitude. Compliment your loved one often. Avoid making comparisons. Don’t take the person’s insults, disrespect, anger, and rejection too personally. Make a habit of showing that you genuinely care about their well-being. Wish them well in all their endeavors, help them achieve appropriate goals, listen to them closely and try to understand the world from their perspective.
To love unconditionally means to care for, respect, understand, and forgive another person regardless of their response to your efforts. “Regardless” is the hard part. Loving a person with mental health problems requires a commitment to this kind of love, even as we know that we will sometimes fail.
A healthy self-esteem is essential to a balanced life, and this strategy is worth lots of time, discussion, and effort. Self-esteem is an immeasurable asset to people with mental illness. It can be the emotional anchor that allows them to monitor their medication, use counseling effectively, regulate their schedule, know their strengths and limits, and seek and accept help when needed.
Family and friends are in position to help with this development, since they are in regular contact. They know their loved one’s personality, thought patterns, habits, preferences, and feelings. Practicing unconditional love, they can create a supportive environment where their loved one has the best chance of experiencing the benefits of a healthy self-esteem.
Tom Smith is the cofounder of the Karla Smith Foundation, which supports parents and loved ones of mentally ill people. He is author of several articles and books, including God on the Job and Alive in the Spirit.