Note: One of our current Family-to-Family participants is writing a weekly series about her experience in NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania's 12-week class. This is her eighth post.
While learning about mental illness is vital, learning how to communicate and work with loved ones can make a huge difference in a family member or caregiver's ability to cope from day-to-day.
This week's Family-to-Family class focused on communication skills. When someone with a mental illness is symptomatic, their cognitive overload can make communicating with them extremely difficult. Additionally, the stress of caring for someone who is suffering from a mental illness can impair normal communication skills. In order to overcome these barriers, it is helpful to first understand why our loved ones have trouble hearing us, and secondly to employ communication skills that respectfully set boundaries and convey empathy.
First we performed an exercise to help us understand what it may be like for a person with an active mental illness to listen to and make sense of what they're hearing. The exercise underscored the difficulties many people have in filtering out external distractions and sometimes even the thoughts in their own head when trying to focus on one voice or task.
We then learned and practiced two communication skills: "I statements" which directly communicated thoughts, needs and feelings in a way that does not put the other person on the defensive; and "Reflective Responses" to demonstrate that you hear what the other person is saying and that you understand why they might feel the way they do. This type of response validates the other person's feelings and enables you to connect and empathize with them.
Certainly it will take practice, and as we discussed in class, some planning to implement these strategies in the real world, but with patience and understanding, hope is that they will help break through some of the communication barriers in our relationships with our loved ones.
For more information, visit the Family-to-Family section of NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania's website.