Supporting Those With Serious Mental Illness

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, serious mental illness, or SMI, affects nearly 1 in 25 adults in the US, meaning that most Americans know someone with one of these conditions.

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SMI encompasses conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychiatric conditions that can cause serious impairments and disruptions to daily life. As defined by the NIMH, an SMI is a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major activities of life.

For those living with an SMI, it can be an incredibly difficult and isolating experience. Those living with one of these conditions often feel as though no one understands what they are going through. And they may not reach out for help or even make those around them aware of their diagnosis or symptoms because of the substantial shame and stigma surrounding these diseases.

People living with these conditions have unique experiences and pathways along their care journey, so it’s essential to understand how they might be feeling and how others can help.

Mental Health and Serious Mental Illness Stigma

Bipolar disorder is a chronic, episodic psychiatric disorder that can cause people to experience drastic changes in their mood, energy and activity levels, among other symptoms. Several types of bipolar disorder have been identified, including:

  • Bipolar I disorder.
  • Bipolar II disorder.
  • Cyclothymic disorder.

But medical science has not been able to determine the cause of these conditions yet. Furthermore, everyone’s lived experience with these disorders is different.

American market research and analytics company the Harris Poll, in partnership with global biopharmaceutical company Alkermes, and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, conducted a recent national survey of adults living with bipolar I disorder, or BD-I. The survey asked respondents about the stigma of living with a serious mental health condition and experiences with treatment, and the results from respondents were eye-opening:

  • Approximately four out of five respondents agreed that they feel like others do not understand what they are going through living with BD-I.
  • More than three-quarters of respondents agreed that living with BD-I makes them feel alone and isolated.
  • Almost half of respondents said that they had tried to hide their BD-I condition from classmates or colleagues.

Despite what respondents shared in the survey about their specific experiences with BD-I, these are trends seen across the mental health and SMI space and many that have been exacerbated because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Mental Illness Treatment Considerations

Treatment of bipolar disorder, like other SMIs is often as complex and unique as each person’s experience. The same survey of people with BD-I found that more than three-quarters agreed that it had taken them an exceptionally long time to feel like their medication regimen worked for them.

Medication management and adherence are key aspects of treating SMI. Unfortunately, it is often the most difficult part of a person’s journey with bipolar disorder. More than half of survey respondents said that they had tried five or more medications to manage their SMI.

How effectively a person’s medication regimen can provide symptom relief is a key factor when making medication decisions and can lead to frequent changes. However, it’s important to remember not to compare experiences, as treatment journeys are different for each individual.

Supporting a Loved One Living With a Serious Mental Illness

Living with bipolar disorder and other SMIs can feel burdensome. There are strategies that those with these conditions should remember and that friends and family members can utilize to offer support.

  • Don’t wait to reach out for help. Avoid leaning into the stigma that people with SMI should pull themselves up and manage their conditions on their own. It’s okay to ask for support and help. If an individual with these conditions is feeling off, seek help from a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, counselor or other clinician, to discuss symptoms. It is never too soon, or too late, to ask for advice or begin working on a treatment path.
  • Don’t give up on managing conditions. Finding a treatment regimen for serious mental illness that works well is often a long and sometimes difficult process, and often people have to try many different options. Resilience and determination are key to treating these conditions. Continuing to take medication as prescribed by a health care provider is a critical factor in managing bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.
  • Don’t forget the vital role of family, friends and support systems. Having a support system and family involvement can play a critical part in helping people with SMI. When support systems play an active role in people’s lives and disease management and work to understand their lived experience with SMI, there is the opportunity for them to empathize with what their loved one is going through and empower them as their treatment journey progresses.

Living with an SMI can be a difficult and complicated experience for many, so it’s important for others in their lives to understand how people with SMIs might be feeling and how to help.


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