How To Help When Someone You Love Has A Mental Illness
A Guide by Sierralyn Cadima
“The mentally ill frighten and embarrass us. And so we marginalize the people who most need our acceptance. What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation." - Glenn Close
Approximately 1 in 4 American citizens over the age of 18 will develop a diagnosable mental illness in a given year.1 Mental illnesses are complex and frightening. It can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Having a strong, caring support system makes life with a mental illness exponentially more bearable. Below is a list of ways that you can help when someone you love has a mental disorder.
**Note: None of these tips are meant to be in place of medical attention.**
- Learn about their mental illness.
If you intend to be in the life of someone with a mental illness, you should do some research so you have some idea as to what they’re dealing with. They may give you details if they are comfortable, but it isn’t that person’s job to educate you. Chances are they are still learning themselves. Maybe you could even provide some insights you found in your reading that could prove beneficial to your loved one. Symptoms and triggers can vary, even among individuals with the same mental illness, but if your loved one is not yet cognizant of what sets off their mental illness then you can use your research to at least give you an idea.
2. Be understanding.
There isn’t always a simple reason as to why those with mental illnesses are feeling the way they’re feeling. It’s not a fun experience for them, either. It is common for individuals with mental illnesses to feel guilty asking for help because they feel like a burden, but frequently reassuring your loved one diminishes or even eliminates this barrier to healing. Guilt can lead to avoiding those they love because they think they are doing you wrong; inflicting self-punishment; thinking they have harmed certain people when they haven’t; requiring more effort to carry out daily tasks because they feel physically heavier; and has been linked to a decrease in concentration, creativity, and productivity.2
3. Ask what their coping skills are.
When in the throes of a mental illness one doesn’t necessarily have enough energy to remember and utilize their coping skills. If they are willing, have your loved one compose a list of the coping skills that are beneficial to them when they are not having an episode so that you can point out ones to use when they truly need it. Here are a few examples: listening to music, bathing, using a stress ball or fidget toy, talking, journaling, and coloring/drawing.
4. Ask what you can do to help.
Mental illnesses thrive in secrecy. Due to the stigmas associated with them, though, talking about struggles can be hard. If you are able to identify warning signs in your loved one, be proactive and ask, “What can I do to help?” It shows your loved one that you care and are committed to helping them through their hardships. Communication is key in any type of relationship, be it romantic or platonic, and navigating a relationship with someone who has a mental illness is not an exception. Making assumptions about what others think accomplishes nothing but stressing you out, and you may not even be right!3 Instead of orchestrating what one another might be doing or feeling, just ask.
5. Make sure they are taking their medication(s) (if applicable).
One in six Americans take Antidepressants or other psychiatric medication.4 There is also a great deal of shame associated with this, both internal and external, so your loved one may require you to remind them to take their meds. Many people ask, Why should I need a pill to be happy? If your loved one says this to you, remind them that mental illnesses are valid illnesses that need treatment, and relying on medication in order to boost neurotransmitters isn’t much different than relying on glasses or contacts to see.
6. Ask what their triggers are and make a plan.
You can be aware of situations that are likely to be especially taxing on your loved one’s mental health so that you can be prepared to provide extra support in these scenarios. Not everyone can pinpoint specific circumstances that are prone to aggravate their mental illness(es), but if you can it is a good idea to let those close to you know, so feel free to suggest this to your loved one.
Maybe your loved one simply wants to avoid these situations for a while, and that is okay. You should let them take things at their own pace. When they are ready, however, the two of you can make a plan outlining how to take a step toward facing this fear without also taking two steps back. Maybe you are going to a party, but you decide to only stay for an hour. If you are going to hang out with a group of people, communicate with your loved one about how you can determine if they need to step away for a minute or if they want to leave. Do not get angry if your loved one clings to you at social events or around people they are unfamiliar with.
7. Just be there.
Sometimes all you need to do is just be there. It can be exhausting always trying to be fixed. Allow your loved one to feel their feelings without judgement, only support. You may have had something planned for that day or night, but it may be best to stay with your loved one and just lay back. People who suffer from mental illnesses face daily battles. Sometimes it is easier to just do nothing for a time.
by Sierralyn Cadima