Much has been written about the need for boundaries when supporting people with mental health issues. But I don’t think we hear much about what having such boundaries means to such people themselves. I will describe a bit from a point of view I had at one time.

What boundaries mean to me

Many of us living with mental health issues find it hard to realize why supporters need to set boundaries. Although I knew I had a mental illness, I never saw myself as being so different from others. So, when a good friend didn’t want to spend time with me I wondered why she didn’t treat me like her other friends. What did I do wrong? Was I really that unlikeable? I can’t describe the depth of my pain.

Eventually I “think” I figured it out—though I’m not sure. I am different. Among other things, I have an unhealthy attachment to her and talk far too much. If only my friend could have explained how she needed this boundary for her own protection, and maybe mine as well! Or might her explanation have made me feel worse?

People living with mental health problems sometimes have a greater need for love and attention than the average person. We may be drawn to those who treat us kindly and really seem to care. The trouble is that when we overdo seeking their attention, both we and our supporters can get hurt. Those who support us have others in their life who need them. How can they look after them if we burden them to the point of burn-out? Because, yes, we can do that to them if we’re not careful.

Trouble is, in dealing with our issues, we are not always able to control ourselves. Big problems can arise if boundaries are not in place. If we get messages that everything is fine with the amount of contact we have when it isn’t, we are in trouble.

There should be clear boundaries. And how much easier they would be to accept if our supporter discussed with us what was needed and why. They will need to take time explaining why this is necessary—gently and clearly. It needs to be done in a way we can hear, understand, and respect.

And now…have you thought of what could happen if we were treated with dignity and as equals invited to help decide on the guidelines. Both would be protected equally from too much contact. It would be good for our relationship and would keep us from feelings of inferiority.

marja bergen