Mental illness has been a taboo topic for centuries, but fortunately, the tide is turning, and we as a society are coming to better understand it, acknowledge it as a real thing, and find solutions to help those who experience it.
Now more than ever, individuals with depression, anxiety, or a number of other similar conditions can manage their disease and lead a normal and fulfilling life. However, there still may be some confusion about how we personally can help alleviate the suffering of those close to us who are struggling. Here are some ways to support a loved one with mental illness.
One of the best things you can do is educate yourself. Learn from reputable sources what mental illness is and what some of the warning signs are.
There’s still a lot of confusion about it, because mental illness is not visible. Although someone’s behavior might appear odd or erratic, we don’t see a cast or other clear outward sign that something is wrong, so it’d be easy to dismiss or overlook it. Mental afflictions are manifested in emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. For example, one of the hallmark characteristics of bipolarity is mania, which can include out-of-control behavior such as binge drinking or making impulsive extravagant purchases.
The more you learn about different kinds of mental illness, the more you can take them seriously, and the more equipped you’ll be to express compassion and love. If someone close to you had a cancer diagnosis, you’d likely study up on it. Treat a mental illness diagnosis the same way.
If you notice that a friend or family member is exhibiting symptoms or seems to be acting in a way that suggests mental illness, be a true friend and have the courage to bring it up in conversation. Carefully encourage treatment, and help reassure him or her that it’s possible to live a normal life and find peace again. By getting a diagnosis, the individual can better manage the problem. It can be extremely disorienting and even terrifying to experience mental illness and not know why. A diagnosis can bring great reassurance that there’s a legitimate psychological reason that someone is feeling or acting different than his or her normal self.
Because mental illness is such a sensitive topic, people who suffer from it unfortunately often carry shame. So the concern arises about what kinds of questions are appropriate to ask. If you know that someone is struggling with a mental illness, should you inquire as to how he/she is feeling? Would this question be appreciated, or is it perhaps too personal for the other person to talk about?
Every person is different, and it’s okay to essentially feel things out as the dialogue progresses. If you want to show support and love but are at a loss for what words to use, consider saying something as simple as, “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know that I care about you.”
It’s important for you to have realistic expectations for your loved one. Mental illness isn’t managed or eliminated overnight, and there might be a long road ahead to recovery. Of course we should always hope for the best, but try to take setbacks in stride and not get discouraged. Also, remember that you are part of the individual’s support system, but you can still set emotional boundaries.
One woman I know had a young adult neighbor who didn’t always take her antidepressant medication. The woman would periodically go check on her neighbor, spend time with this troubled soul, and occasionally encourage her to be more faithful in taking her meds. However, it wasn’t solely her responsibility to be the caretaker.
She enlisted the help of others and was able to increase the support system of this young adult and ease some of the burden on herself. And just as the woman in this story was wise enough to know, it’s critical that you not burn yourself out trying to care for someone with mental illness. Periodically take breaks, practice self-care, and renew your own emotional energy. This will help you rejuvenate yourself and enable you to better care for your loved one.
There’s no single easy answer for helping someone with mental illness. There will likely be good days and bad days. There may be frustration, heartache, and indescribable pain, but there’s also a chance for renewal, hope, and finding peace again. If you are close to someone who is experiencing a mental illness, I encourage you to not avoid the problem but instead to lean into this challenge. Practice these strategies to best provide care and preserve your own emotional and physical well-being.