How to Support Someone with Mental Health Problems
Living with a person who has a mental illness can lead to a range of reactions and emotions. It can be exhausting, unpredictable and even frustrating. The very words ‘mental illness’ can be scary, not only for the person who is affected by the illness, but also those closest to them. Family and friends are often deeply affected in many ways, some of which are extremely isolating. A major factor in distancing those affected by the condition from further support is the pervasive stigma surrounding mental health problems.
This issue was expertly addressed recently by comedienne and mental health campaigner Ruby Wax in her Channel 4 programme ‘Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions’. She asked, “how come every other organ in your body gets sick and you get sympathy, but for your mental health you get none? This needs to change.” This change can be brought about with knowledge – not only of the condition and the treatments, but also of your loved one’s individual reactions. Start by talking to the person to find out how they are experiencing their condition and let them know that you will support them if they need you to. If possible, talk to those involved in their treatment so that you are aware of any side effects or expected behaviours. Not only will this help you offer better support, but this increased awareness and knowledge will help all of you to cope better with the challenges ahead.
If you find yourself in the situation where someone close to you is diagnosed with mental illness, a million and one things can go through your head. Some will be rational and some will not and it can be difficult to make sense of this maelstrom of emotions initially. Do not be hard on yourself, there are many things to think about in a situation like this and it is often difficult to gain clarity and order your thoughts during such a difficult and tumultuous time. Firstly, it is important to be realistic about your capabilities in this situation. Your love and support will help the person, but you cannot cure a mental disorder, no matter how well-intentioned you may be. This does not reflect negatively on you or your actions, just be aware of the role you can play. As long as they are accessing adequate treatment and professional support, your role is simply to be there for them. Try to understand that it has been just as hard for the person suffering with the disorder as it is for you and others close to them. Although ideal, acceptance of the problem by everyone is not always realistic or indeed necessary – just focus on your own acceptance. Remember that you cannot control the thoughts and feelings of others but your actions may have a profound impact upon them.
Don’t Forgot Yourself
When a loved one is experiencing mental illness try to separate the disorder from the person. The person is still the person you know and love even though their behaviour and reactions may be affected by the condition. Remember – love the person, even if you hate the illness. Equally, as much as you love the person who is suffering with the condition, you must remember to love and care for yourself; not least because if you don’t look after yourself, you cannot care for and look after anyone else. To support someone with mental health problems, you need in yourself to be well physically and mentally. It is also important to remember that there may be instances where your needs will come before those of the sufferer. This may be difficult for you and will likely foster feelings of guilt, but it is essential that you heed these calls and put yourself first if the event demands it. Sometimes counselling and psychotherapy can help in this process.
The Importance of Mindfulness
When living with someone with mental illness, mindfulness is key in all areas of life. They may behave like a totally different person, for example the characteristic mood swings common in those suffering with bipolar disorder, who swing between manic and depressive states. During either of these phases mindful and caring responses are of the utmost importance. When a person is experiencing a depressive state they often feel that they will never get out of it and that things are the worst they could be and their reactions to you may seem out of proportion and extreme. Be prepared for simple actions such as reminding the person to take their medication to lead to a negative response due to your ‘accusing’ behaviour. Obviously it can be extremely frustrating and upsetting to have your love and support met with such behaviour but you must try to remember that it is the condition talking and not take things to heart. Although this is easier said than done in the heat of the moment, what this person needs most at this time is love and support.
Love and Support Makes a Difference
Some days the person may not want your help and this is where your involvement becomes even more important. Just being present in their life and not pushing them to accept your help and being there if they need you can be a major comfort to someone suffering with mental illness. Suffering with a mental health problem can be an extremely lonely place for someone, but love and support from those around them can make life a little easier. What your loved one needs more than anything is for you to give mental illness the sympathy it deserves.