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Communicating with a mentally ill loved one

Communicating with a loved one who is mental ill (or anyone who is mentally ill for that matter) can be quite challenging. The most important thing in such a scenario is to treat the other person with respect and empathy. This would allow them to feel heard and understood and improve their relationship with others and eliminates the kind of social isolation people with mental illness experience.

It is very likely that they will get defensive if they feel that the conversation has a confrontational tone to it. You can start by being more compassionate and curious. Let them talk as much as they want to without being interrupted. This is why many therapists suggest reflective listening as opposed to reactive listening. Reflective learning is the result of Carl Roger’s school of client-centered therapy which gave emphasis on empathy. Reflective learning is essentially listening with the sole purpose of understanding and this will allow you to have an insight into their emotions and experiences as well. You could start be asking them politely or reflecting back what they just said and confirm that what you’ve inferred from the conversation is what they actually meant.

The idea behind reflective learning is to understand their POV regardless of the extent of the mental illness (even if they are not in touch with reality). So even when you do not agree with their ideas do not interrupt them and prove them wrong. Always keep in mind that they might be dealing with a lot of pain and anger, and may break down to tears because they are unable to cope with their emotion. In such a situation sit down with them and tell them that you are trying to understand what they want to express and reassure them that you are there for them and listen to them carefully. Apologize for not listening to them before.

One always needs to consider the possibility that someone who is mentally ill may not want to talk to you. in such a situation body language could be of great assistance. Look out for subtle hints like eye contact and movement of the hands. If they do not want to talk they would avoid eye contact and show signs of discomfort by moving around or playing with their hands nervously.

While speaking to your loved one make sure you give them time to process and respond to what you are saying. One should also keep in mind that most conflicts and issues cannot be solved with one conversation. Have frequent conversations in a comfortable environment before the person goes through another change. It is also recommended that you notice the changes in environment when a conversation was successful and when it is not. This will allow a person to identify certain things that triggers an emotional response.

Another communication strategy that can be used is the LEAP communication model. LEAP encourages you to listen, empathize, agree, and then partner with them in resolving conflicting emotions. This encourages them to be more trusting. By doing so you are letting them know that you are open to their inputs and that you are willing to compromise your ideas for the good of the shared goal.

Last but not the least, it is quite crucial that you set limits on how long they should talk. This is a very tricky thing to do because it could appear as if you are showing signs of disinterest. This is necessary because expressing their emotions continuously can be overwhelming as they are dealing with a lot of emotions at once. This limit will also allow you to comprehend their emotions better. You can say, "I am sorry you’re going through this right now, but take a moment to stop and breathe deeply".

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