10 Tips for Communicating with a Mentally Unstable Person

Mental illness affects more than just the mentally ill person; it affects their family and friends as well. A mentally unstable person can be extremely difficult to deal with, particularly if you don’t know how to communicate effectively with them or what their triggers are. So, how do you handle an interaction with someone who’s mentally unstable? Use these 10 tips to help you communicate and connect effectively with someone who may be in need of help but doesn’t know it yet

1) Physical distance

Many people who suffer from mental instability can feel threatened or intimidated by physical proximity. If you’re having a serious conversation, sit across from them, but not too close. It’s also important to avoid touching. While most people do not find it offensive to be touched in casual ways (such as on their arm or shoulder), if you notice that they are physically uncomfortable around you, take your cues from them. Remember, communication is about mutual respect – if they don’t want to be touched, that should be respected and accommodated whenever possible.

2) Avoid confrontation

One of the easiest ways to come into conflict with someone who is mentally unstable is by trying to persuade them of your point of view. A less confrontational way to discuss an issue might be more successful than forcing your opinion on someone. Your goal should be to convey a message, not prove that you’re right, so let go of any ego you may have. Listen actively: It can be frustrating when dealing with someone who has trouble focusing, but hearing them out and really listening can help diffuse conflict and allow both parties to learn from each other. When they try and express their thoughts or feelings, don’t interrupt or try convincing them that what they are saying isn’t true.

3) Listen non-judgmentally

Once you’ve recognized that your loved one is mentally unstable, it’s easy to place blame. You might even assume they brought their situation on themselves through irresponsible behavior. But, in fact, mental illness can be caused by biological factors, psychological factors or environmental factors; and it can happen to anyone—even perfectly good people who have done everything right in life. As such, you need to approach them with compassion and care, not judgment. In order to facilitate an effective conversation about how best to help your loved one, be open-minded and listen carefully. Your relative is probably confused about what’s happening—and so are you—so don’t offer unsolicited advice until they’ve had a chance to explain themselves fully.

4) Use phrases like I understand

People who are mentally unstable may have trouble communicating. To help them, you must find ways to show that you understand what they’re saying even if it doesn’t make sense. Try not to criticize them or judge their actions too quickly. Instead, use words like I see and I hear you. Use open-ended questions : Open-ended questions invite people to share their thoughts without feeling threatened by what you might think of them or how you might respond.

5) Don’t start preaching

Someone who is mentally unstable may be at risk of following through on violent or suicidal thoughts. When interacting with such an individual, it’s important to steer clear of logic and reasoning (why do you feel that way? how do you think your actions will affect others?). This approach is unlikely to yield positive results. Instead, keep your conversation positive and strictly factual. Offer statements like I know you’re upset, but you need to leave that here when we get home so we can talk about it calmly. Or simply listen—letting him or her vent can sometimes help defuse tense situations in which he or she might lash out violently.

6) Explain yourself calmly

Being able to explain your point calmly, no matter how emotionally overwrought you feel at that moment, is key in getting your message across. A person who is unstable and abusive may take everything you say personally and think that every word is an attack against them. Keeping your emotions under control will help you stay collected when speaking to an unbalanced person. Be truthful: Even though telling a mentally unstable person what they want to hear can be frustrating, it’s important not to lie about any details or facts. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion of a situation, but remember that honesty is always necessary when dealing with someone who isn’t well.

7) Delay action until you have time to think

When you’re dealing with someone who is obviously upset, don’t take action in real time. Delay your response until you have time to process what they are saying and how best to respond. Many times people will tell me they did something when they were in an emotionally-charged state that they later regretted; if they had just stepped back, taken some deep breaths, and thought about it, they might have ended up making a very different decision. As difficult as it can be, keep your distance: Don’t engage. With your words or actions—even seemingly small ones like getting too close or standing too near. Your presence may only make things worse—and could get you hurt.

8) Use self-disclosure when appropriate

It can be tempting to try and talk someone out of feeling a certain way, but that’s not how emotions work. Emotions aren’t logical, they just are—and if you get into an argument with someone while they’re in an emotionally vulnerable state, you might never get them back. Don’t try to be their therapist: If someone is mentally unstable and talking about suicide or homicide, contact your local emergency services immediately (911). Do not engage in further conversation about it. Express your concern and offer help—don’t push them to open up further by asking why? Accept that there isn’t much you can do: Sometimes we simply have no control over other people’s feelings and actions.

9) Be rational

I wouldn’t tell you to communicate with your mentally unstable spouse like you would communicate with an unhappy customer, or a misbehaving child. You need to be rational when dealing with someone who is irrational, or else they will simply walk all over you. Remain calm, and use logic to help them see reason. This can be incredibly hard; some people might prefer to give up on relationships rather than deal with conflict. However, if there is any sort of relationship that should be salvaged it’s your marriage or partnership. If things are broken enough that you are considering divorce (or living separate lives), then you likely have other concerns besides what is causing discord in your marriage at that moment. Marriage counseling can help!

10) Take your time

Being patient is important when communicating with a mentally unstable person. Give them time to respond and don’t lose your temper if they aren’t in the right state of mind. If they seem combative, stay calm and let them know you are only trying to help. Acknowledge that you may not be able to understand their feelings, but you want to learn more about what they’re going through. This could lead to some positive dialogue and help put them at ease. Remember: Being friendly goes a long way toward establishing trust and getting through tough conversations without anger or aggression on either side.

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