Loving someone with a mental illness can take its toll on you. Learn about setting boundaries and self-care here.

Each year nearly 20 percent of Americans suffer some kind of mental illness. The odds that you know someone who’s struggling are very high.

It could be your friend, your sister, or your coworker. Maybe you’re feeling completely overwhelmed trying to help out and you’re starting to feel like you’re experiencing anxiety. It doesn’t have to be that way!

Here are four ways to practice self-care when a loved one is struggling with mental illness.

1. Set boundaries.

The concept of setting boundaries tends to get a bad rap. Often when people hear “Set boundaries” they think it’s unnatural or defensive; that you’re preventing someone from seeing to real you by refusing to be vulnerable. Especially in the context of a relationship where mental illness is a factor then it can be easy to interpret boundaries as being mean or unfeeling.

I admit that I absolutely bought into this idea when I was first introduced to the idea of boundaries. Luckily as I’ve come to understand what healthy boundaries actually look like, I realized this idea of boundaries being selfish could not be further from the truth.

Boundaries do two things: they enable you to help out your friend within reason and they stop you from emotionally overexerting yourself.

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A boundary is essentially a clear cut line showing when you have done enough.

For example, it is reasonable to respond to a mentally ill friend’s texts at 6 P.M. It is NOT reasonable for your friend to demand that you be on call 24/7. By setting a boundary there (for example, you cannot answer texts after 9 P.M.) you will alleviate your friend’s anxiety about whether you’ll respond and you will not have to bend over backwards trying to be accessible ’round the clock.

2. Acknowledge your autonomy.

When a loved one is dealing with mental illness it can be so easy to become entwined in their struggles. When they’re anxious, you’re anxious. You sense their depression and it brings you down. It can be hard to remember that you are your own person with your own emotions and experiences! That’s why it’s so important to remind yourself of your individuality regularly.

In the end your friend is the only person who can change their unhealthy behaviors or thought patterns. You can root for them, support them, and buy them chocolates, but you cannot fix them.

You have enough problems of your own without shouldering theirs. If you’re struggling to see where your emotions end and theirs begin, this would be a good place to start setting boundaries!

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3. Communicate honestly.

Remember that moment Phoebe became your favorite Friend?

“I wish I could but I don’t want to.”

There’s a reason that zinger stuck with you! Pheebs was unabashedly honest and could never be roped into something she didn’t want to be a part of.

I’m not saying you should start telling your struggling friend that his haircut looks bad and his “famous” gluten free muffins taste like rocks — that’s not the kind of honesty that will help a relationship.

What I’m getting at is that it doesn’t do anyone any favors to dance around the truth. Are you too tired to be a listening ear right now? Say that — kindly.

It will save you and your friend a great deal of anxiety when you’re not each trying to figure out what the other really means.

4. Prevent crises.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It may be over-quoted, but it sure is true. The best thing you can do for yourself when a loved one is struggling is to go out of your way to show yourself that you care about you.

You know those days when it seems like everything goes wrong? The cat throws up on your favorite shirt, you forget your lunch but can’t hit up the vending machine because of your nut and gluten allergies, and your boss is in a bad mood. Then your car breaks down. Worst day ever, right? Well what if you’d been wearing your (clean) favorite blouse, you were well fed, and you’d just been offered a promotion, then your car broke down? It would be quite a different story, no?

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That’s the idea behind crisis prevention; it’s a way to give yourself an emotional buffer zone.

Take time every day to do something that comforts you and makes you happy. It doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming, but make a point of choosing something enjoyable. It will greatly enable you to handle turbulent events with aplomb rather than knee-jerk panic.

It’s important to be supportive but you have to take care of yourself, too. Let us know in the comments how these tips work for you.