Has your roommate been sleeping through all of their midterms? Is your child suffering from horrible panic attacks? Is your sibling not eating? Are you concerned about the amount that your friend drinks and you don’t know what to do about it? No matter whether you are concerned about family, friends, or partner you have come to the right place. Below are some basic do’s and don’ts that can help you support a loved one through their mental illness.
Don’t: Wait for them to come to you.
This is the first DON’T. In fact, this Don’t is so important that I am going to say it again.
DON’T WAIT FOR THEM TO COME TO YOU.
The reason why you should not wait is that mental illness is a matter of life or death. If you are concerned for a loved one do not wait for them to ask you for help. A simple “I’m always here for you.” Will never suffice. If you are concerned about your loved one you have to take action right away. Do not wait until it is too late. If you are concerned about your sibling’s mental health tell your mom. If you are concerned about your friend’s mental health contact close friends or their parents so they can also support them. Supporting someone with mental illness is extremely difficult but I am telling you now sending them a text saying you will be there for them is very ineffective. You have to take extreme measures because mental illness can take their life.
Don’t believe me?
In December of 2018, I was cutting myself. I hadn’t told anyone and it had been persisting for a month. Right before I came home after exams my sister and I called on the phone. I ended up telling her that I was self-harming but I told her not to tell my mom because she would be concerned and “I was fine.”
I wasn’t fine. She told my mom the words I couldn’t say and that simple act; the risk she took saved my life. After that, my family was constantly checking in on me and were looking for the best treatment options for me.
Do: Be empathetic.
How would you want to be supported if you were sick? Maybe you would want someone to take care of you. Maybe you would say:
“I hate being sick, I want to go outside.”
And maybe they would say:
“Ugh being sick totally sucks but you need to stay in bed to get better.”
Now how would you want to be supported if you were the one with a mental illness? I think you would want unconditional love. I think you would want support to help you get through the constant pain, so you can live a long and full life. I think you would say. “I hate being so anxious. I want to go outside but I can’t because there are so many things out there that make me anxious.”
And I think you would want them to say:
“Feeling that way totally sucks, I can only imagine. We don’t have to go outside if you don’t want to, we can do whatever makes you feel best.”
To fully support a loved one, you can’t make them feel bad about something that their mental health hinders them from doing. Don’t force them to do anything they feel uncomfortable doing. What if you were the one in their position and someone was making you feel bad because your brain was not letting you go outside? Making someone feel bad for something that their mental illness prohibits them from doing will not only make them feel ashamed but it will hurt your relationship. They will stop coming to you because they will associate some of their shame with you.
BE EMPATHETIC. Feel with them.
Here is a link to a video that can help explain empathy a bit more:
Don’t: Give negative reinforcement
Giving negative reinforcement is one of the worst things you can do for someone struggling with mental illness. Here is why it is so bad. Think about a time you got in trouble by your parents, when you know you did something wrong. Like maybe you hit your sister because she was being annoying and she started crying even harder because of pain you caused on purpose. So you get in trouble and you feel really bad. Maybe you feel ashamed. But what if you were uncontrollably hitting your sister. You wanted to stop hitting her but you couldn’t. This example is a bit extreme but it is relevant. When someone has a mental illness they don’t choose to behave the way they do. So making them feel worse about a behavior, will only put more strain on your relationship which will not help either of you. For example let’s say you had class all week. Your friend who you sat next to every day hasn’t shown up in 10 days. They are usually the one who helps you with your homework. You know they are struggling with their mental health, but they haven’t been talking to you, so you haven’t gotten any help from them. Then the next week they show up to class. Out of frustration, you say:
“Look who finally decided to show up.”
They already feel bad enough about not being able to move from their bed and do anything. They also probably wish they could help you but they physically can’t. Then, when they finally dare to go to class, they are made to feel bad on top of feeling bad from their loud mind. Instead, you should say:
“I’m so glad you came today!”
You’ll see how much of a difference it makes.
If you know your loved one is struggling you should always check in on them. Even if you think they are fine or if they asked for help, check-in and see how they are doing. You are not annoying, this is actually very necessary. Checking in shows them they aren’t alone. It shows them that you see that they are struggling and it will allow them to trust you more. If you are checking in on them they will see you as a person to come to because it shows that you actually care. Like I said before, offering to always be there for them once isn’t enough. At first, they might not say much, but eventually, they will. Checking in goes a long way.
Don’t: Minimize their experience.
This one on the Don’t list, is the reason that it took me so long to ask for help. Minimizing someone’s experience not only hurts your relationship with that person but it can make them feel worse. It took me years to ask for help with my depression and anxiety because I didn’t feel like I was sick enough since I hadn’t attempted suicide (which is false. you are always “sick enough.”) This is also the reason I didn’t come forward about being sexually and emotionally abused. I felt like there were people worse off than me so what was the point. In comparison to them I was fine. BUT I WASN’T!!!! I haven’t been fine in almost 5 years.
Everyone’s experience is different. This doesn’t mean that one is less important than the other. So don’t tell them it could ways be worse, don’t tell them well there are people with real problems. That doesn’t work. Saying that will only hurt your relationship with this person rather than help them
Do: validate how they feel.
The final one on the list. Validation is one of the most helpful and supportive things you can do when trying to support a loved one with mental illness. Validation is recognizing that a person or their feelings are worthy. Validation tells a person who is struggling that it is okay to feel the way they feel. It tells them that they are sick enough, and they deserve to get help. So if you see your loved one struggling try saying “you have every right to feel what you feel.” Or “I can only imagine that what you’re going through is really hard.” Validation goes a long way and it can actually save a person’s life. (also refer back to that empathy video for this one.)
All I have to say in conclusion of the Do’s and Don’ts is to be kind and compassionate. Show empathy and be supportive. Ask your loved one how you can best support them. Listen to what they have to say. Listening could be enough to help them.
Every recovery journey is different. Some people may need more support than others. I think this list is a very broad analysis of how you can help a loved one. But if you want to actually support them give them your time. Be there. In the long run, when they are more in control, they will see how much love you put into them.
I know that supporting someone who is struggling with mental illness is really hard and emotionally draining. You also can’t save everyone.
I think we can save more people then we do. Being supportive is the number one thing you can do. So please help out. What would you want if that were you?