Mental Illness: The Role of the Caretaker

Supporting the Mentally Ill: The rights and responsibilities of a CaretakerLast week I started a four part series on mental illness. Rather than focus on the person with a mental illness, I’ve chosen to focus on the families and friends or rather, the support team. As a person with a mental illness, I’ve been extremely lucky to have a few amazing people in my life.

I’m going to give my mom and husband a shout out. My mom is my rock – never moving, always there to cling to when times get rough. My husband is my anchor, keeping me from getting too “out there.” I am very aware that I can be a challenge for them. I have a crazy sleep schedule. I go from be very friendly to paranoid. I can rotate from crying to aggression to laughing to crying again in the space of 30 minutes. While those things are hard on me, they are just as hard on my loved ones.

This Series:

  1. Mental Illness: Supporting A Loved One With a Mental Illness
  2. Mental Illness: The Role of the Caretaker
  3. Mental Illness: What to say AND not to say to a loved one
  4. Mental Illness: How My Family Helps

If you choose to be a part of the life a mental ill person there are basic responsibilities you need to understand. With those responsibilities you also have basic rights.


Caretakers of the mentally ill need to care for both the physical and mental health of a person.

For whatever reason, mentally ill people are not inclined to take care of either. We will bathe when we wish. We will take our pills when we want, if we want. We are good at throwing tantrums and telling you to leave us alone (that was the polite way of say to eff off).

People with mental illness often feel misunderstood, alone and helpless. More than once I’ve wondered why I was put on Earth, as I don’t feel like I’ve contributed to life.

Because of all of this, these are the responsibilities of the caretaker.

1. You need to make sure that your loved one is safe, fed and clothed. For whatever reason, those with schizophrenia and bi-polar are not good with hygiene or making smart decisions. I don’t know if it’s because we’re too busy with other things or we don’t want to be bothered.

2. You need to make sure that your loved one has their medications available and is taking them on time. This applies if you are the primary caregiver. It is perhaps the worst responsibility you will be given. You WILL need to apply tough love. I’ll write more about that below in the “rights” section.

3. Learn all that you can about the diagnosis and sometimes diagnoses of your loved one. The Internet is full of information. There are more books than you can throw a stick at. A good health care professional should answer your questions about the mental illness itself. Knowledge truly is power. With that knowledge, you should lesson your fears and anxieties.

4. Encourage your family member. Many people with a mental illness feel unworthy to live and that everything is hopeless. Encourage them to take up a hobby, help around the house, become an active part of their treatment and more. If their doctor agrees, a support group can be great, especially for a newly diagnosed person.

5. Show additional love and compassion. Use positive words rather than negative ones. Avoid telling a person to “snap out of it” or that “it’s all their head.” That last one was said to me and I laughed because, yeah, DUH – it’s all in my head! People do better in a loving environment rather than a negative one.


Good news! You have rights and it’s important that you remember and enforce them.

1. You have the right to be treated with respect. Do not allow your mentally ill loved one to treat you without respect. Have the same expectations of them as you would of anyone else. If your loved one is being rude, it is ok to tell them, in a calm voice, that you do not want to be treated that way. If they do not stop, walk away. If they become violent, call the police. Don’t let a situation get out of hand because of fear or embarrassment.

2. You have the right to set the rules of your home. Parents and grandparents often feel guilty and responsible about the mental illness. Because of this they are easy to manipulate and intimidate. If the home belongs to you – set the rules UP FRONT. If you move into their home to help them – set the rules UP FRONT.

You have the right to insist that your loved one take their medication if you are going to be in their life. If they can’t abide by that rule they can go elsewhere. Be strong and use tough love. You are not helping them if you let them get away with not taking their medications. Of course, this is different with those who underage. Consult your therapist or psychiatrist for the best way to handle this situation.

3. You have the right to be taken seriously when expressing concerns about changes in a family member’s behavior. If the doctor you are working with dismisses your feelings, you need to find a new doctor. Most doctors do listen to what you have to say. If you find yourself feeling dismissed tell the doctor your feelings. You are just in standing up for yourself.

4. You have the right for a time out when required to prevent ‘burnout’ or to cope with stress. Many caretakers become depressed themselves. Take time each week to do something for yourself – watch a movie, get your hair done, play a round of golf, etc.

5. You have the right for rapid response in all situations, but especially in an emergency. Call the police if you feel threatened or you feel your loved one is suicidal. Call the doctor for help for nonthreatening situations. Ask your doctor before a situation arises what the best way to handle a crisis is.

Finally, call a help line if you’re at loss for how to handle a situation and you don’t know where else to turn.

You should have all of these numbers written down BEFORE a situation arises. Make certain your loved one is aware of them.

As a mentally ill person and the mother of a mentally ill child, I know how difficult the role of a caretaker can be. The fact that you are willing and are researching the task says much about you as a person. You may never get the recognition or appreciation that you deserve from the people in your life but there are people who understand. We thank you.

DISCLAIMER: This is a personal blog. This blog contains opinions and experiences. We are not doctors. If you feel you need help, please seek a professional. Please view our complete Disclaimer.



  1. It is truly very rare that i find such informative and important info about serious life changing circumstances. Thank you for sharing this post. I was a meaningful one to read. Passing by from the Wonderful Wednesday Blog hop

  2. Hi Stacy! First, I commend you for writing about this at all. Most people wouldn’t. Second, I’m a caretaker here. The only thing I question is the “tough love” in some cases. If I tell my “6 days away from being 18” daughter, my way or the highway and she left in one of her states, then what? We’ve read stories that scare us when that has happened. She is no where near leaving Mom & Dad (especially Mom) so I’m afraid that the time will come and I will be faced with that problem.

    Thanks for sharing this personal part of your life!

    • Hi Bobbi, Thank you for stopping by.
      Tough love is really hard – it works for some & not for others. The purpose is to put boundaries and state what is acceptable to you. The same as we would do for a toddler or a long term house guest.

      Tough love worked well on me, I did what I was told even in my 20s and 30s. Unfortunately, my daughter is much different. We have not been able to control her and she is now on her own. Yes, it is beyond scary and frightening for us. However, we could not continue to have our lives in a constant state of chaos.

      There are so many variables involved – your daughter, her illnesses and your own patience. I highly recommend the National Alliance for Mental Health website, otherwise known as NAMI. There is a section available for parents and so much more. I also recommend a local support group for caretakers if they are available where you are.
      Blessings, Stacy

  3. My sister has been mentally ill for 40 years…..Thank you for writing these posts. Very few people realize how family mental illness can impact your life. I have 2 other sisters, and the 3 of us have always made sure our sister is safe. It has not always been easy, but we love her, and will always protect her.

    • You’re welcome – writing these are very easy for me (until I get to my personal story!). Thank you for sharing with me. It sounds like your sister is surrounded by love. God bless all of you and may he keep you safe.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this Stacy and for sharing it with all of our Let’s Get Real readers. This is such an important subject. I don’t often find personal story information. I think people will really relate to you and you will be able to help so many of them. I think the guilt is very common. I also love what you say about the right to be treated with respect.

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