In the United States alone, approximately one in five adults are living with some type of mental illness. Of those people, about a quarter experience a serious mental illness that significantly impacts their ability to lead a healthy, productive life.
Making the decision to seek treatment for a mental illness is its own challenge. For some, not believing that they’re really sick can pose a significant roadblock. For others, the path to recovery may seem impossible, and they may not believe that effective treatment is available.
Choosing to get treated for a mental illness is a victory, but the work doesn’t stop there. Success only comes when the individual consistently follows through with their prescribed treatment. This often includes taking medications to help balance brain chemicals and regulate thoughts and emotions.
For someone living without a mental illness, the path to health can seem obvious and easy to navigate. It’s difficult to understand the perspective and experience of someone living with an illness, and it may be frustrating when they don’t comply with their treatment plan. Here are some pointers for what to do when someone refuses to take their meds.
Process the Situation Objectively
Staying objective when a loved one is refusing to take medication for depression or another serious mental illness is difficult. Some people may even take the refusal to comply with treatment plans personally, as if their loved one won’t take their medication because they don’t care about the relationship.
It’s important to maintain objectivity when trying to figure out how to help someone who doesn’t want help or seems to lack the motivation to follow through with treatment. Remember that the person with the mental illness likely doesn’t intend to cause harm. They may also not see the full impact that their words and behaviors have on the people who love them. In some cases, periods of relapse and noncompliance are part of the long journey to wellness.
In the majority of cases, noncompliance has nothing to do with an individual not wanting to achieve mental health and stability. It also isn’t connected to how they feel about their friends and family or their desire for healthy relationships. Finding and focusing on the root of the problem rather than its outcomes can help people process the situation objectively.
For someone on the outside looking in, medication can seem like the perfect fix for mental illness. It’s supported by a lot of scientific research, it’s relatively simple—just swallow a pill or two per day—and measurable results are fairly predictable and quickly evident.
However, there are many reasons that someone may not comply with their treatment plan. When someone takes the time to educate themselves on the mental illness itself and everything that treatment includes, they often gain a different perspective on what their loved one is experiencing.
There are numerous reasons someone may not take their medications, including:
- They may have a hard time remembering to take the medication at the same time every day
- They may hate or be unable to swallow pills
- They may believe that taking medication is “cheating” or taking the easy way out of mental illness
- They may worry that the medication is unsafe or unnatural
- The medication may have unpleasant side effects; even if the individual experiences relief from the symptoms of their mental illness, the medication may have extreme side effects that are as unbearable as the illness itself
Once someone has pinpointed the reason for why their loved one is refusing to take their medication, it may be easier to determine how to provide support.
For example, if someone isn’t complying with their treatment plan because they forget to take their medication, helping them set a daily reminder on their phone or purchasing a pill counter may be a simple solution. For someone who questions the safety of their medication, researching how it works can provide peace of mind. Some medications can be administered in other ways, providing options for those unable to take pills. Addressing side effects can be a little more challenging, but in some cases, the individual’s doctor can change the dose or switch them to a different medication.
Beyond helping the individual find solutions for complying with their medication regimen, there are ways people can provide support for loved ones with a mental illness. Being available and taking the time to listen may be helpful. In some cases, someone can provide support by taking a step back and letting their loved one know that they care but are willing to give them space.
Resist the Urge to Use Guilt
While it’s true that guilt can be a powerful motivator, in the end, it can cause far more harm than good. For example, it may be tempting to tell someone that by not following through with their treatment plan, they’re letting everyone down. However, it’s not hard to see how for someone living with anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder, these kinds of statements can cause them to spiral deeper into feelings of frustration, sadness or apathy.
Attempting to issue ultimatums or use guilt to inspire change rarely works. Instead, individuals can motivate their loved ones through positive, empowering statements that encourage them rather than highlight their perceived failures.
Keep Communication Channels Open
In the end, the only person that can ensure compliance with a treatment plan is the individual themself. Even if they’re inconsistent with following through with their medication regimen or they’ve decided to abandon it altogether, there’s hope for their journey.
For people living with a mental illness, feeling isolated can make symptoms even more unbearable. Open communication channels can be a lifeline for someone who’s living with regular anxiety attacks, obsessions, and compulsions they can’t control or major depressive episodes. When they know that they have a support system that allows them to share their experiences and get compassionate, objective feedback, they may have an easier time seeking support and guidance.
Intervene When Necessary
For some people, choosing to put the time and effort into complying with their treatment plan is a decision they make independently. Others may have to overcome the belief that treatment is ineffective or that they’re too far gone to be helped. Noncompliance can further reinforce this belief if the person thinks they’ve tried treatment but had no success. In cases such as these, it may be helpful if a trusted friend or family member intervenes.
Some types of medications must be taken regularly or weaned off of slowly to avoid posing a risk to the individual’s physical health. For example, going off of some types of depression medications cold turkey can cause serious withdrawal symptoms such as aggression, worsened depression, and anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
If symptoms from the individual’s mental illness worsen to the degree that there’s concern over their personal safety, it may be necessary to intervene. This may involve expressing personal concerns, gathering friends and family to share concerns as a group or recruiting the help of a professional interventionist.
It can be frustrating when someone refuses to take their medication. Rather than giving in to that frustration, it’s important to objectively understand the situation, know how to help and when to step back, and recognize when it’s time to intervene for their safety.
FHE specializes in helping individuals find treatments that fit their unique challenges and goals. To find out more about our treatment plans, contact us today.