In her new book, Replanting Lives Uprooted By Mental Illness: A Practical Guide For Families, Nancy Boucher explores how families can be the key to healing that a person with a mental illness needs. Boucher begins by exploring the feelings of guilt that those with a loved one mental illness often carry, ultimately reminding them that while they cannot erase mental illness, they can ease it.
While families often feel simultaneously helpless and responsible to help, Boucher writes that it is most important to treat who the person is, rather than the mental illness that they have.
One helpful exercise she offers involves taking an inventory of the person – collecting information about everything from their interests to their personality traits, stressors, things that soothe them and coping skills – followed by an inventory of their illness, which includes information about the signs, symptoms, triggers, insights about the illness and coping strategies.
Because mental illness affects the entire family and often places enormous stress on all family members, Boucher suggests that the family come together as a team to support one another and keep normal routines and traditions going.
Of particular importance is to see the person, despite the many ways that mental illness may have affected them.
“Many peoples’ views of those with mental illness remain constricted seeing the illness, not the person, and by a lack of knowledge and understanding,” writes Boucher.
When families can take the focus off of the illness and see the person, they can begin the journey of helping their loved one re-connect with a more confident version of themselves – a version that is better prepared to face mental illness.
Part of that process, Boucher writes, is understanding the purpose of both boundaries and separation. While boundaries state the tolerances and expectations of our actions toward another and his or her actions toward us, separation acknowledges the importance of individuation of each person for mature ego development. Boucher offers several helpful statements families can use, such as “I’m sorry you are not feeling well, and it’s not okay for you to take your agitation out on me.”
Communication is also a fundamental component of healing from mental illness, and one that is often challenged. Boucher shares her own experience with her son Clem, who suffered from mental illness.
“In our family’s experience, we were often worn out by communications that erupted into destabilizing conflicts, so to get by, at times we avoided saying what was in our heart and on our minds,” writes Boucher.
By expressing caring and guidance in a warm empathetic tone, Boucher says family members can help their loved ones to more independently and successfully manage their symptoms, and ultimately become more confident.
Another helpful tool Boucher offers is to use feedback loops to help build stability for the families and reduce mental illness symptoms. By checking in with a person with mental illness frequently, and providing options to reduce stress – such as taking a nap, going for a walk or sitting quietly and having a coffee – a better communication evolves, and the chances of success in staving off a breakdown increase.
Reducing sensory overload and creating new neural pathways can also help the person with mental illness find new ways of responding that don’t evoke mental illness symptoms.
“With the neuroplasticity of the brain, over time you can create optional pathways. The more often these are used, the more smoothly paved they become. Prompts, both verbal and visual can help someone try these new pathways that are healthier. Motivation is critical to establish them, and repeated use and feedback loops can help ‘set’ the new habits,” writes Boucher.
To help connect with the emotional stamina and resilience needed to establish new routines, Boucher asks her readers to recall a time when they built stamina and resilience, and then write down which actions worked best, and which did not work so well.
Also important, Boucher tells us, is to maintain a diet of healthy routines – such as leaving encouraging notes for the person with mental illness, incorporating daily routines and rest periods into the day, using feedback loops, offering reassurance and finding opportunities to complete tasks that demonstrate responsibility.
However, for any treatment to work, the person with mental illness must be engaged in the process of recovery.
“You need to identify an entry point where your loved one with an illness becomes engaged with treatment and has the opportunity for learning and growth,” writes Boucher.
While Boucher does offer many insights from her own experiences with her son’s mental illness, encouraging poems, and helpful exercises, readers may find her book lacking in both a clear definition of mental illness and the evidence-based treatments that have proven effective for the individuals and families suffering from them.
Replanting Lives Uprooted By Mental Illness: A Practical Guide For Families
Nancy Pizzo Boucher
Nancy Pizzo Boucher (2016)
Softcover, 114 Pages