We learned today that Academy Award winning actor, Robin Williams, died of an apparent suicide at his home in California. Mr. William’s publicist, Mara Buxbaum, said in a statement that Mr. Williams had been battling severe depression. It has been well known that Robin Williams had been battling Bi-polar Disorder, a mental illness where people swing between episodes of mania, high levels of energy, and severe depression. It was probably during one of his depressive episodes that he chose to end his life.

We expresses our sympathies to his family as it is often the family that suffers silently when a loved one has a mental illness. Families often have to cope with multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations, medication non-compliance, erratic and impulsive behaviors, drug use and mood swings from someone who suffers from a mental illness. If this is your experience here are 5 things you can do to cope when your loved one is mentally ill:

1. Educate yourself. It is important to educate yourself about your family member’s mental illness so you know the warning signs to watch out for when they become suicidal, for example, or what to do when they exhibit out of control behaviors. Knowing this can help you remove yourself from dangerous situations and be able to seek help sooner.  If they are suicidal or homicidal please take them to a local mental health hospital for an evaluation.  If they refuse to go, then call the police to assess their current situation and decide whether to have them court ordered into inpatient care.

2.  Have Adequate Self-Care.  It is important to get enough sleep, establish routines, and eat healthy as you might feel that you always have to “be strong” to help your loved one through one crisis after another.

3. Set Boundaries. You might call it tough love but it is important that you establish that your life will not be defined by one crisis after another. It might be that you demand that your loved one seek counseling or see a psychiatrist for help and medication as a condition of your support and presence in their lives.

4. Seek Support. Counseling can help you learn how to cope with caring for your loved one as well as give you a chance to express your feelings freely without your loved one feeling hurt by what you have to say. Support groups like those run by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) help to give family members a voice and seek to unite families in combating mental illness.

5. Love Unconditionally. When you love someone with a mental illness know they will never meet all your expectations. Knowing this can help free you from the shame and the guilt of feeling like you should do more or the anger of being let down when they don’t comply with their treatment. Remember loving someone with mental illness is no different than loving someone with a heart condition. It takes patience and perseverance.

It is too early to know exactly what drove Robin Williams to commit suicide but as his family grieves, use this occasion to have a loving dialogue with your family member who is struggling. If you know of someone whose family is touched by mental illness offer support and be available to help if needed.

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Author: Lyris Steuber, MA, LMFT is a Lake Mary Marriage Therapist & Individuals Counselor for Depression and Anxiety with Total Life Counseling Center. Total Life Counseling Center hires experts that specialize in children, teens, adults and can be reached for questions at (407) 248-0030.