When things don’t make sense, or when relationships feel out of control, it's common for people to feel fear. You might feel that the situation you are dealing with is dangerous, is a threat, or will cause pain. Here are some scenarios related to mental illness where people feel scared:
- Your loved one is acting out in violent or angry ways.
- They’re showing new and unusual changes: saying strange things, not acting like themselves, having strange beliefs, or doing things that are not normal to their personality.
- They’ve always struggled with controlling their emotions and actions, but things are getting worse and you don't know what to do.
- You’ve known for a while that they struggle with mental illness, but things have gotten worse lately.
- They think about death or have suicidal thoughts.
- They’ve started engaging in dangerous behaviors—like drinking excessively, doing drugs, or cutting themselves.
Give yourself permission to admit you’re scared
If you’re feeling afraid because of a loved one’s behavior, it might be hard to admit it at first—at least out loud. There are lots of reasons for that. Maybe you feel guilty for being afraid—you’re supposed to feel nothing but love for this person… right? Or maybe you don’t want to do or say anything that might make the person look bad. You’re worried that other people will judge them.
These fears can hold you back from speaking up and finding ways to get help. But if fear isn’t dealt with early on, it will probably get worse. Dealing with fear on your own can also be very isolating. You need help and support from others, and you can only get that by speaking up.
Remember that it’s possible to love someone and still be afraid. Fear doesn’t mean you think badly of your loved one—it just means that you are concerned, and don’t quite know how to help.
What can I do?
Whether you have felt scared for a long time or if fear is a new feeling, here are some actions to take that can help.
- Do things as a team. You can’t do it all on your own. Find a “team” to support you. That could be other friends or family members who are also concerned and want to help. Or it could be a support group, or a therapist of your own. A support system can help you work through your feelings about the situation. You can discuss things to try. You can share your struggles and support other people in theirs. If you’re just now becoming involved in your loved one’s care, a support system can help you learn more about shared decision making, and steps you can take to be more involved.
- Think about your expectations. What do you want out of your relationship with this person? What do you expect from them? What do you wish they would do differently? It may seem obvious to you that some of these things would be best for your loved one. But it’s also important to respect their own decisions and their own boundaries. Communication and building trust are extremely important. For example, if they don’t want to medications, it's better to have a conversation about why and work together to find solutions, than to try and force them to take meds.
- Explore emotions. Underneath most commonly known feelings like anger, sadness, and happiness are many other feelings. “Negative” emotions like fear and anger are ways of protecting ourselves. If your loved one is acting out in anger, they may also be feeling guilty, frustrated, afraid, sad, ashamed, or vulnerable. Trying to understand these other feelings can help you understand what your they’re dealing with and why they’re acting this way. If you explore what is underneath your fear, does that help you explore solutions. You can also take a deeper look at your own fear and the emotions behind it. Your underlying feelings might remind you that you can't tackle these problems alone, or that you need a break.
- Get informed. Mental illness affects everything—your thinking, your emotions, your reactions, your control… It’s important for friends and family members to understand how mental illness works. It helps you build empathy and understand why someone acts the way they do. It helps you understand how you can help… and when they need help from a mental health professional.
- Set boundaries. At the end of the day, supporting a loved one through mental illness is hard. Just because you understand why someone does something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt you. As a part of your loved one’s support system, it’s up to you to decide how much you can invest in the relationship, and when you have to set boundaries.