National Mental Health Awareness Week is October 6-12, 2019
“We know that mental illness is not something that happens to other people. It touches us all. Why then is mental illness met with so much misunderstanding and fear?” -Tipper Gore
You know that someone you love is struggling with a mental illness. Maybe they disclosed their condition and symptoms with you. Perhaps they haven’t said a word, and you can’t quite put your finger on the exact issue, but you know that something is going on. Regardless, as a loved one, it’s reasonable to feel confused, concerned and even powerless.
Knowing how to support someone with mental illness can make you a powerful ally. You don’t need to be a trained therapist or expert to provide help. You just need to know these essential reminders.
Listening Matters Most Of All
If someone you love shares about their mental illness, the single most essential thing you can do is listen. Listen without expectations, time constraints or preconceived notions. Listen without judgment or anticipation. Most of all, aim to listen even if the person you love doesn’t really want to share what’s going on.
All mental illnesses can entail some level of shame, anger and confusion. Many people who are struggling don’t quite know how to cope with these dizzying feelings. Likewise, they may have experienced rejection from others when sharing their experiences.
As a friend, your responsibility is to focus on displaying support and compassion. You may not love all the details. You may find yourself feeling frightened or frustrated. You might not know if you’re saying the right thing. Remember that it’s not your verbal response that matters - it’s your ability to sit with the emotions - even when they feel distressing.
Validate The Experience
Whether it’s depression, anxiety, eating disorders or substance use, no two mental illnesses look exactly the same. Even if you know someone else who has the same condition, that doesn’t mean it’s helpful to share about what that person is doing.
Instead, it’s better to focus on validating the feelings, experiences, and reactions. In doing this, you’ll want to avoid throwing around generic cliches along the lines of:
Are you really depressed/anxious/etc.?
It could always be worse
This is a phase
Why don’t you try ____?
It’s probably caused by _____
Everything happens for a reason
While some of these statements may have good intentions, they can feel limiting and critical. They may also minimize your loved one’s experience.
Instead, you want to demonstrate that you believe your loved one. You care about their well-being. You feel grateful that they feel comfortable and safe reaching out to you. You want to do whatever you can to show support.
Don’t Try To Fix Or Solve
Listening and validating are two of the most important cornerstones of providing support. That said, many people try and jump ahead of themselves by offering “helpful” solutions or advice.
Of course, this desire to offer guidance is only natural. Maybe you know a fantastic remedy that worked well for you or someone else. However, taking on a problem-solving approach can backfire. It may make your loved one feel pressured to take the advice and succeed. Or, perhaps, your loved one already tried your suggestion, but it didn’t work for them- which can perpetuate their feelings of irritability, guilt, or sadness.
Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t actually want advice when they reach out to loved ones. They’d much rather have someone tell them, I’m here for you, I care about you, please let me know what I can do to help you during this scary time.
Take Care Of Yourself
Loved ones can risk experiencing compassion fatigue when helping people facing emotional or physical distress. Common symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
Feeling obsessed or overly preoccupied with your loved one’s condition
Experiencing immense guilt or shame
Feeling numb or apathetic to the situation
Problems with focus and concentration
While it’s admirable and generous to be available for your loved ones, you must also prioritize taking care of yourself. After all, it’s hard to give to others when you’re feeling emotionally drained. Practice compassion to yourself. You don’t need to have all the answers, and you certainly aren’t responsible for curing anyone.
How To Support Someone With Mental Illness
Knowing how to support someone with mental illness allows you to provide the compassion and hope your loved one needs during a fragile time.
However, if you are the one struggling, you may want to consider professional help. Therapy offers guidance, practical coping skills, and unconditional support for all types of mental illnesses. Are you interested in learning more? Let’s talk.