Being There: The Importance of Family Support

“My message to family members is – continue to show up for your loved ones and don’t give up” – Alikah Adair, Family Support Specialist with NAMI Baltimore

When Alikah Adair decided to become a Family Support Specialist with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Baltimore in late 2019, she couldn’t have known how essential family support would become in the year ahead. She had been working with NAMI for over a decade as a Peer Support Specialist but decided to transition to family support when her focus shifted from her own recovery to supporting her son.  I interviewed Alikah to discuss how family members and friends can support their loved ones this winter.

As an instructor with NAMI Family-to-Family, Alikah helps family members build their coping and problem-solving skills to better support loved ones living with mental illness. It’s important for family members to learn to care for themselves so they can be fully present for their loved ones. Family members can play an important role in creating a peaceful home environment and helping their loved ones feel loved and supported, but she emphasizes the importance of not being too overbearing or controlling.

Family support has become especially important in 2020, now that many people’s social circles and support systems have dramatically shrunk to those in their household.  With COVID case numbers soaring again, the days getting shorter and the stress of a holiday season like no other; the winter will be especially hard for those living with mental illness. The pandemic has led to increased feelings of isolation, loss of control, fear, and hopelessness.

Alikah has seen the impact on the families she works with. “Having a mental health condition during this time has been very challenging,” she said. “I have heard a lot of parents are talking about how their loved ones are dealing with increased anxiety, episodes of mania and depression.” The support of family and friends will be critical to helping people living with mental illness get through the next few months.

If you are concerned about a loved one, just being there for them and regularly checking in is one of the most important things you can do. Alikah recommends family members try to “step outside of yourself and notice any changes in your loved one’s behavior.” Are they sleeping more than usual? Are they unusually quick to anger? If you are concerned about your loved one it can be hard to know how to support them. Alikah recommends starting by “gingerly checking in to make sure they’re okay.”  For example, if she hasn’t seen her son all day, she will go down to his room and casually check in.

Here are some more tips from Alikah on how to support your loved ones through the winter:

  • Just be there – Regularly check in. Don’t be afraid to discuss grief, fear and the challenges you’re facing. Being open and communicative can help create a trusting and safe home environment as well as relationship.
  • Maintain routines – Having a structured routine is really important for people living with mental illness. Help your loved one create and stick to a manageable routine that works for them. This can help them feel like they’ve accomplished something, even if that’s only taking a shower or getting out of bed.
  • Plan quality time – Intentionally spending meaningful time together as a household is an important way to combat feelings of isolation. Make a nice meal, play a game with the whole family, or plan a family movie night. If you do not live with your family or friends, schedule time to spend with them remotely and find creative ways to interact from afar, such as a group game like Among Us.
  • Respect boundaries – Respect your family member’s need for personal space and time to themselves. Respecting boundaries is important for healthy relationships
  • Take care of yourself – Reach out to other family members and friends to support your own mental health. Make time for self-care.
  • Get additional help if you need it – Call the Here2Help Hotline at 410 433 5175 for 24/7 access to support, whether you are looking for a therapist for your loved one or you need help from a clinician to deal with a crisis. Take NAMI’s Family-to-Family 8 week course to connect with other family members. Encourage your loved one to connect with peer support, if they are ready.