Many people experiencing mental illness appear “normal” as there are often few visible signs to let others know what they are dealing with. However, on the inside they may feel like their world is turned completely upside down: alone, scared, overwhelmed and with little hope. Friends and family members often feel grief and isolation as they struggle to understand their loved one’s illness and how to be supportive.
You can play an essential role in supporting someone cope with mental illness. Here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Learn more about the signs, symptoms and treatment
You are likely to be more supportive when you understand what your loved one is experiencing. Educate yourself about the illness and encourage your loved one to also learn more. This can validate what they are experiencing and potentially decrease the sense of being alone. Keep in mind that every person is unique, therefore their experience of a mental illness will not necessarily match all aspects of a mental health diagnosis.
- It’s important to understand that your loved one’s thoughts and behaviour are often not under their control. Many behaviours they are demonstrating may be a reflection of the illness and not about getting attention or creating drama or stress in their relationships.
- Reliable information about mental illness and treatment is available through organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association, your local mental health services, your doctor and community organizations. Many communities have support groups for people experiencing mental illness and there may also be support groups for caregivers. These groups provide opportunity to share, learn and connect with people who understand what you are experiencing.
- Go with your loved one to their appointments with their doctor or other service providers; offer to write down notes or questions. In addition, you may be the first to notice signs that your loved one’s mental illness is worsening and can provide helpful information to service providers.
2. Keep open communication.
Good communication benefits relationships, and is especially important when you are supporting a loved one with mental illness. The stigma of mental illness can make communication challenging, as many people with mental illness fear judgment from others.
Sometimes in our efforts to be helpful we end up in “fix it” or “take control” mode and this can be overwhelming for the person we are supporting. It may lead our loved one to feel like he or she is not being heard or that they are inadequate for not being able to resolve issues on their own.
Here are a few communication strategies to keep in mind:
- Some mental illnesses make concentrating or remembering things difficult. You may need to use short, clear, direct sentences, and you may need to repeat them several times. Be patient and understanding.
- When he or she feels like talking, be fully present for the conversation by not checking your cell phone and by turning off the TV or computer, etc. Validate your loved one’s feelings. Avoid giving advice and recommendations, and remember that you don’t need to “fix” the issue.
- There may be times when your loved one doesn’t have the words or energy to express what they are experiencing. When your loved one doesn’t want to talk, don’t underestimate the comfort of just sitting quietly with him or her. Your supportive, calm presence can be more helpful than you realize.
- Your loved one may be feeling overwhelmed with aspects of daily life like eating, sleeping, bathing, etc. You can be supportive by helping with day to day tasks such as organizing schedules, problem solving finances if needed, meal planning, and so on. A simple question to ask is “What would help right now?” Be aware of the urge to take complete responsibility for all aspects of your loved one’s life, as this isn’t healthy for either of you.
- If your loved one experiences serious mental health episodes, it is important to plan ahead for these. During times of wellness plan who will provide support during an episode and what they will do to help cope with that episode.
Sometimes in our efforts to be caring and supportive we get so caught up in wanting to say the “right thing” that we actually don’t say anything for fear of making things worse for our loved one. This may lead your loved one to feel more alone and overwhelmed: the opposite of our intention. Sometimes the best thing to say is “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care about you and I’m here for you.” Remind them that they are so much more than the illness they’re experiencing, and help them to remember their strengths and accomplishments.
3. Find hope, however small or fleeting.
Hope, the expectation of good things to come, is crucial to supporting a loved one experiencing mental illness. Holding on to hope allows us to see beyond the current challenge and can help to move us away from the doubts and fears we may hold regarding our loved one’s future. Helping your loved one to connect with hope can also make a significant difference in their ability to cope with their illness.
4. Take a break.
Living with a mental illness can be exhausting; negative thought patterns accompany many mental illnesses and can convince the sufferer that they are not worthy of the support of others. Your loved one may be convinced they will never experience happiness again, that they are disappearing under the heaviness of the mental illness. A distraction, however brief, can be helpful. When possible, plan fun activities that provide a break from everything and which connect your loved one to other aspects of themselves. An opportunity to laugh, play or be creative can provide welcome relief from the intensity of coping with mental illness.
5. Engage in your own self-care.
Just as living with a mental illness can be exhausting, so too can supporting someone with a mental illness. Our own emotional or physical fatigue can compromise our ability to listen and support. Those supporting a loved one with a mental illness need to engage in positive, healthy self-care. This means engaging in activities that nurture your well-being such as pursuing hobbies, reading, exercising, etc. It also means maintaining healthy boundaries. Author Lucille Zimmerman wrote, “Taking good care of yourself means the people in your life receive the best of you rather than what’s left.”
You can make a positive difference in the life of the loved one you are supporting. Keep working with your loved one and his or her mental health service providers. Most importantly, stay positive and don’t give up hope.