For the media

Help for loved ones of people with a serious mental illness

By The Health News Team | May 20, 2019
Help for loved ones of people with a serious mental illness

One in 20 American adults live with a serious mental illness that causes severe functional impairment, interfering with major life activities such as work and relationships. The challenges of mental illness not only affect the individual with the illness, but also their family, friends and others around them.

Although new forms of therapy, medications and community services have helped many to lead full and independent lives, the support from friends, family and peers remains an essential element in the recovery process. But facing mental illness in a loved one can be confusing and challenging; many do not know how to help or support their loved one, or what resources are available.

Sharp Grossmont Hospital now offers a support group to help friends and family of patients in its Behavioral Health Center cope with the unique challenges that come with loving someone who lives with a serious mental illness.

Support for friends and family
It can be a scary time when a loved one is diagnosed with a mental illness, and you may feel helpless or even fearful. You might witness irrational or disturbing behavior that is extremely out of character and not know how to react. Your first response might be to become frustrated, thinking that your loved one’s actions and behaviors are happening by choice rather than because of mental illness.

The group is designed to help people understand mental illness and the mental health system they are currently engaged in with their family or friend. It is a safe place for participants to ask questions, share their experiences and gain the tools needed to take care of themselves while supporting their loved one.

“It’s important to know that you are not alone,” explains Mary Heineke, a therapist who leads the group. “Many struggle with talking about what they are going through with their friends or family members who have a mental illness. The group setting encourages empathy, productive discussion and a sense of community with people who understand your situation.”

The group provides mutual support and allows participants to experience compassion and encouragement from people who can relate. “We hope that coming to the group helps people feel better about the process and have a better understanding of how they can and cannot help their loved one at this time.”

Important takeaways from the group include:

Hope — “Our approach is encouraging and realistic, teaching that it is possible for people to recover from mental illness and live productive lives,” Heineke says. “However, it is not like healing a broken leg or having your appendix removed; the healing process takes time and there is no limit. We cannot put our own expectations of recovery on our loved one. Recovery is not a marathon; it’s more like a long hike with lots of hills and valleys.”

Knowledge — “In the group, we share information about symptoms of mental illness as well as the need for medication management and ongoing treatment,” she says. “We encourage people to seek outside information from local support groups to learn more about mental illness, the system for mental health care in San Diego County, and how they can help advocate for their loved one. We also offer resources for ongoing help.”

Self-care — “It may seem counterintuitive to take care of yourself at a time like this, but we must have balance in our own lives in order to be of help to others,” says Heineke. “We constantly remind people to slow down and breathe, and accept that we cannot control the outcome and must make an effort to set an example for our family.”

To learn more about Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s friends and family support group, call 619-740-5811.

For the news media: To talk with Mary Heineke about Sharp Grossmont's friends and family support group for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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