“Are they a threat to themselves or others?”
It’s the question you will be asked if you are trying to get help (through involuntary commitment) for a loved one with a mental illness. And in many states, provinces and countries around the world, it’s your answer to that question that will determine whether help will be forthcoming or not.
For a person’s illness to progress to the stage of potentially harming themselves or others is very serious and obviously not desirable, yet the flip side of that coin is that if someone hasn’t reached that stage, and won’t voluntarily accept treatment, there is little a family member can do. It can be an excruciatingly difficult and heart-wrenching position to be in, as I learned some years ago.
The symptoms of my mother’s mental illness started when she was in her late teens. She received her first treatment for schizophrenia when she was 73. See, her primary symptom was paranoia. How do you get a super-duper paranoid person to accept that you’re acting in their best interest when you prod them to seek mental health help? As Wayne Campbell says in the very worthy 1992 film Wayne’s World, “It might happen. Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.”
Recently, the family doctor who treated my mother for many years said Mum was the most difficult patient she’s ever had, and she felt terrible because she wasn’t able to help her. She tried, I tried, my sister tried. And then we gave up and went about looking after ourselves, which is what you have to do once you’ve spent all the energy and resources you’ve got and find yourself no further down the road.
I also talked with a woman recently whose mother has schizo-affective disorder. Her mum was in her 60s when she was finally treated, but it was only after she’d taken an axe to their dining room furniture and started setting fires in the back yard. She’s now under court order to take her medication, but still doesn’t believe she has a mental illness.
Mental illness can go untreated for a lifetime.
There are reasons behind the laws: individual freedoms require protection and people have a right to refuse treatment, for any disease. Unfortunately, the reality is that family members end up having to stand by as loved ones end up in marginalized living conditions or even homeless on the streets. It’s estimated that one-third of the homeless population in the United States have an untreated mental illness.
I don’t want to discourage anybody from trying to help their loved ones who have a mental illness. Yes, absolutely, educate yourself about the laws and options in your home state or province. Work with the resources that are available to you. Have a plan. And if none of that works? Well, then you may need to set some boundaries in your relationship and take care of yourself. Do not feel guilty about it. Really, there’s no point in two people (or more) being sick from the situation, instead of one.
If you have to temporarily or permanently let go of a relationship with someone you love dearly, you’ll likely find yourself grieving the loss. Here is a recent article by Jennifer Boykin with some thoughts on the journey of moving through tragedy/grief and coming out stronger.
Incidentally, at age 73, when my mum finally received treatment for her mental illness, it was because she developed dementia on top of the schizophrenia. She was committed because she couldn’t remember how to access her money to buy herself food, not because she was violent. If the dementia hadn’t come along, she’d probably still be holed up in her apartment with the closed blinds and the triple-locked door, and we’d still be estranged.
I’m grateful she’s finally receiving help, but I can’t lay claim to any credit for that outcome. The bonus is that it gave me an opportunity to help out with her care, although my butter cookie contribution may be as much to blame as the anti-psychotic medication for her recent weight gain. Because I’ve spent the previous years making sure my own mental and emotional health were in order, I’m able to participate from a place of strength and compassion and with a clear head and heart. There’s a good reason why the safety videos on airplanes tell you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before attempting to help others.