Dr. Aimee Daramus shares her insight and expertise in this guest blog about managing emotions when someone you care about has a mental illness.
When you have a loved one with a mental illness, you’re going to have a lot of thoughts and feelings, and you may not feel that you can be honest with anyone about it. One of those feelings will be anger, and if you don’t express in a healthy way, it’s going to come out in an unhealthy way. Expressing authentic anger in a supportive way is one of the healthiest things you can do for your family and yourself.
There are a number of studies and a lot of real-life experiences documenting how anger expressed in a judgmental, unsupportive or blaming way can actually make symptoms worse and make hospitalization (or rehospitalization) more likely. On the other hand, your anger is valid. You might be mad at the unfairness of having a mental illness at all or at the situations or people that contributed to it. You are likely to feel some anger at a family member with a mental illness, even if you know they don’t deserve it. However, it helps to ask yourself if you’re truly angry at the family member with the illness, or if you’re really angry at the circumstances.
The following tips are helpful you when you’re mad at the circumstances rather than at the person:
1. Find a friend, family member, or therapist that you can be honest with, and express your anger to them.
2. Look for a caregiver support group that focuses on mental illness. If you can’t find or afford one, look online for web sites or social media pages where you can get support. Be careful about “outing” your loved one without their permission, though. You can always create an anonymous online identity if you want to.
3. Try being angry “with” your loved one instead of “at” them. Share your grief and rage together. Let the illness be the enemy rather than making enemies of each other.
4. Journal or do art to express your feelings. You could do this as a project with your loved one, or as a family if possible.
5. In order to let go of the anger, write it down on paper. Burn it in a candle if you have a safe space, and if not, crumple the paper up and play “anger basketball” by throwing it into the trash. Repeat as needed.
The next few ideas are for when you’re legitimately angry at your loved one and you have the urge to say something that might make things worse. Maybe they blew up at you again, or are having a hard time meeting the bills after a manic episode led to a spending spree, for example:
1. Remember that the illness is the enemy and try to direct your anger at it, not the family member. They’re suffering at least as intensely as you are.
2. Focus your anger on specific behaviors, not on the person. Be mad because they broke something you care about, but don’t make personal remarks that you might never be able to take back.
3. Choose your time and place. If they’re already escalating, this isn’t the time. Focus on helping them calm down, and talk to them about your own anger later. Focus on what coping skills they could use, like punching a pillow or smashing some ice out in the yard, next time they feel the need to break something. If you’re angry that they’re too tired to help, is there something they could do in bed or while sitting down that would work for both of you?
4. Intervene early if possible. When you see signs that they’re escalating, try to help them put some coping skills in place.
5. Stay solution-focused. If you’re mad that they broke something you care about, it’s fine to say so at the right time (see #3), but maybe focus on what they could do to make it right.
6. Within reason, it’s OK to put consequences in place, like replacing a broken item eventually, or letting them know that you’ll talk to them again when they’re calm and ready to apologize, but not when they’re speaking abusively.
You’re not terrible for being angry. That’s normal and fine. Just remember that your anger can make everyone’s problems worse, including yours, if you don’t express it thoughtfully. Your anger can also make things better for everyone if it helps people communicate, solve problems, and try to bond over your shared experience.