Twenty percent of people in Australia experience a mental illness in any given year. With these statistics, it’s likely that you will be called upon to support a friend or family member with their mental health condition at least once during your lifetime. How do you provide support to them?
When caught up wrestling with the mind, people often forget to take care of their physical and emotional selves. Do what you can to gently remind and encourage the person to exercise, eat right, get enough sleep, socialise and participate in some activities which they enjoy, or used to (check out my article ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Self Care’ for more information. Encouragement through offering to join them in some of these activities, or offering help so it’s easier for them to take care of themselves, is great. Saying they ‘should do X or you’ll just make yourself worse’ is not so great.
Learn about the difficulties that a particular mental illness brings for people. Read up about various treatment options and encourage the person to engage professional help if required. There are many great resources available for both people with a mental health condition and the people who care for them. Medicare assists with psychological consultation fees and there are free, self-paced treatment courses delivered online, which provide access to evidence based psychological techniques and education to anyone with access to the internet. A great starting point is Beyond Blue.
Look for opportunities to empathise
People suffering from mental health issues fear they’re not ‘normal’, and often delay seeking treatment or speaking to others for fear of seeming crazy or weird. Yet so many symptoms of mental illness are amplifications of experiences we all have. Most of us have down days, days where we can’t be bothered, nothing seems fun and it’s all just a bit hard. Turned up and over time, these become some of the key features of depression. Ever had a racing heart, churning stomach and stumbled over your words because you were doing something that frightened you (public speaking, anyone)? People with generalised anxiety disorder experience this too, but during activities often considered routine by others (e.g. talking to a receptionist at the doctors).
Resist the temptation to problem solve
Now you know that you’ve experienced the symptoms of anxiety too it’s tempting to tell the person how you’ve managed it. Then all their problems will be fixed, right? Sorry, no. Some of the factors in your life which allow your states of depression and anxiety to come and go will be missing in theirs. It could be extra social support, a different thinking style, or a varied tolerance for risk. If it was really as easy as ‘snapping out of it’ or ‘just doing it anyway’ then the person wouldn’t still be suffering. Acknowledge the complexity and don’t feel you need to offer advice.
Don’t be afraid to ask
If you think something is really wrong, be prepared to ask a couple of big questions: are you thinking of hurting yourself? And is it bad enough that you’ve thought of suicide? As awkward as it might be to ask these questions, the outcome is helpful either way: either they’ll brush off your fears and you can relax, or they’ll confirm your suspicions and you can take action that could be lifesaving (call Lifeline on 13 11 14 for help or get them to their GP or a Psychologist. If you’re worried they’ll take action on their thoughts very soon call 000 or take them to the nearest hospital).
For some people, asking someone about their feelings is uncomfortable. What do you say? And how will you handle their reply? This Beyond Blue article has some great examples of how to start a conversation about how someone is feeling.
Keep showing up
Social withdrawal is a key feature of many kinds of mental illness. No matter what else you do or don’t do, continuing to be there for the person is the most important. Better to be there, no matter how gloriously imperfect you are at helping, than to avoid the person and create further isolation for them. Knowing someone else cares about them is a powerful catalyst for taking actions that lead to symptom reduction.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.