Helping somebody with mental illness
One of the difficult things about having a mental illness is not accurately being able to explain it to those closest to you.
Just as hard, still, is being that loved one and feeling helpless.
We often wish we could snap a family member or friend out of a dark place or help give another perspective, but more often than not, a supporter’s advice simply rings on deaf ears. When you’re a mental illness sufferer, there are times when you can’t see the outside world.
When faced with the seemingly impossible task of supporting somebody and their mental illness, there are ways you can help:
You’re a supporter, not a mental health professional. While somebody may be exhibiting signs of a mental illness like depression or anxiety, your layman’s diagnosis can feel accusatory and threatening for the sufferer.
Instead, just ask questions when you recognise somebody is struggling. Listen to their answers, inquire for elaboration, and rather than trying to change anything, simply validate their experience. Acknowledgement of how hard an illness is to cope with can be more beneficial than any other advice.
Keep blame out
It’s really frustrating to deal with the effects of somebody else’s mental illness on a daily basis, especially when they can’t see that it affects you too.
But telling a person how their state of mind or their behaviour negatively impinges on your life won’t help them. Instead, it will make them feel more burdened and hopeless, as if their actions are hurting everybody around them.
This can lead to a deterioration of their condition and encourage increasing negativity, and even suicidal thoughts. It’s therefore vital not to blame somebody experiencing mental health issues with your own suffering. Focus instead on strengthening coping mechanisms for both sufferer and supporter.
Ask what helps
When it comes to mental health problems, different things help different people. Some need company while they ride out a bad bout, others need to be left alone. Some people may find comfort being hugged or held, while others will be uncomfortable with any kind of human contact.
From writing down thoughts for clarity to going for a walk, it’s important to ask a person what helps with their mental health. When they are next struggling and unsure how to get themselves out of it, you then have a targeted activity for them.
Don’t suggest particular treatments
It can be infuriating for a mental illness sufferer to be told by somebody who doesn’t necessarily understand their condition what treatments they should be trying.
Being asked ‘‘have you tried yoga/meditation/jiu-jitsu?’’ or being told ‘‘I hear this kind of diet can be helpful’’ isn’t helpful, it’s condescending.
It makes a sufferer feel like you think there’s a ‘‘magic cure’’ to their complex problem.
Go with them to their GP
A first port of call in dealing with mental health issues is seeing a primary care provider: a person’s GP. However, this can be a very daunting process for somebody who has only recently accepted that they need help with their mental health, if indeed they have accepted this at all. The key fear for many is that they’ll get ‘‘pumped full of Prozac’’ and sent on their way.
For any GP visit, a person can take a chaperone into their appointment with them. As a supporter, it can be beneficial to help a person explain their mental health situation to a professional, ensure they don’t leave anything out, and help accurately convey the distress it causes them. Making sure someone doesn’t underplay their difficulties (and ensuring a fuller picture) can expedite effective treatment.
Then, you can be part of the discussion about treatment options, take notes, and help your friend or family member recall what the doctor said later if they have become overwhelmed.
Know when to intervene
While being a supporter to somebody with a mental illness largely revolves around being there to legitimise their experience and help them accept it, there may be times when you have to intervene.
This is particularly relevant during acute psychiatric distress, for example, suicidal feelings or when you think there’s potential for a person to put themselves or others in any other kind of danger. In such instances, your objective is not to make somebody feel better but to get them safety to a medical professional who can take over. ❚ Lee Suckling has a masters degree specialising in personal health reporting. Do you have a health topic you’d like Lee to investigate? Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with Dear Lee in the subject line.