Time To Read: 8 minutes
Mental illness is something that a lot of people face and is becoming more spoken about in society, however, there is still a lot of stigma and barriers to help-seeking, as well as a lack of awareness of how to actually help and support someone who is struggling or living with a mental illness. I will use the words ‘struggling’ and ‘living with’ mental illness interchangeably throughout this article as not everyone who is living with a mental illness is ‘struggling’, although many are.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with their mental health, it can be difficult to know how to support them. In this article, we will explore some tips on how you can support someone living with mental illness. Whether it’s simply lending an ear or getting professional help, we hope this will give you some ideas on how to best help your loved one. Dont forget to check out our article – 5 Practical Ways to Support Yourself When Supporting Someone With Mental Illness
- Educate yourself on mental illness and its effects
As someone with a lived experience of mental illness, I feel strongly about this one. The burden of education should be on the supporter (for the most part). We have boatloads of resources at our fingertips. If you know someone has a diagnosis (e.g. Bipolar Disorder) or a symptom (e.g. Suicidality), there is no excuse for you to not go and research the basics of the condition or experience yourself, this allows you to come to the conversation with basic knowledge and understanding.
Notice I said to understand the basics. You are not expected to have professional knowledge, nor are you expected to know exactly what the person is going through. The point of education is not to assume you know the persons experience, but to understand the basics and allow you to ask meaningful questions about their experience. For example, if speaking to someone with a Bipolar diagnosis, you could ask “what are mania and depression like for you?” This simple act of understanding those terms can be a huge relief to the person experiencing the illness, reducing feelings of isolation and also reducing the mental load of educating others. Bonus points: Tell them you did some research! This shows the person you really care and they mean a lot to you.
Note: Mental health in general is an important part of well-being, but it often gets neglected or is misunderstood. Taking the time to educate yourself on mental illnesses and their various effects can help you better understand your own mental health, the mental health of those around you, and how best to support yourself and others when necessary. From research into debilitating conditions such as depression to more mild issues such as stress management, understanding mental health is important in order to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms early and help prevent the onset of more serious issues. If this is something you are interested in learning more about, check out our Mental Health First Aid course which is designed to give you an overview of mental health conditions, their signs, symptoms and how to talk to someone about them.
- Be patient with the person – they may not be able to help how they’re feeling
Battles with mental health issues can be extremely tough, and sometimes people that are struggling don’t have full control over their emotions. For the person, it can often be like sitting in the passenger seat and watching your behaviours but feeling as though you have little control over them. This can bring feelings of guilt and shame and lead to isolation so they do not hurt those around them. Emotional outbursts, overreactions and black-and-white thinking are all common signs we may see when talking to someone who is suffering with mental illness.
Being understanding and compassionate about this can go a long way to helping someone out during these trying times. This compassion could help break down walls and even open conversations that could potentially save a life.
Mental illness is a spectrum, some people may be very self-aware and have things under control for the most part, other people may be new to diagnosis and still figuring it out, and others may be having a flare-up of symptoms. Find out where the person is at in their journey, who their supports are and what they are currently doing to help themselves.
- Reign in the Judgement
As humans, it’s impossible to be non-judgemental. Judgements are how we stay safe in life and are perfectly normal. What we need to be aware of, however, is that judgements are not necessarily a reflection of reality. Think of it this way: If you came across a bear in the woods, your automatic judgement would likely be ‘danger!’, that’s a great and useful judgement. For mental health and mental illness, it is not as simple. We have all kinds of judgements ingrained in us that we may not even realise. This can be from childhood, life experience and even the media. Some frequently asked questions about being non-judgemental:
- Why do we have to be non-judgemental?
If judgement is perceived by the person who is struggling, you can almost guarantee they will not be able to open up to you from then on. This can lead to further feelings of shame and isolation.
Q – How do you be non-judgemental?
Being aware of your own judgements around mental illness, suicide and symptoms is important. It’s also important to break down some of that stigma with education and research. If someone says something that triggers a judgement in you, the trick is to notice and catch the judgement before it comes up, especially if you’re someone who shows facial expressions easily. If something has slipped out, be it a facial expression or a not-so-useful statement, be honest. Tell the person that you’re still learning and don’t want to invalidate them. Tell them that you want to be a safe space for them to talk freely, and they’re helping you learn by being so honest.
Q – What does listening non-judgementally actually look like?
In practice, listening non-judgementally means listening with open ears and an open mind. It is not coming into the conversation with preconceived ideas, and simply listening and believing the person’s experience as they explain it. Do not try to solve the problems for them, just listen and express acknowledgement of their feelings. If they want to problem solve, it is okay to follow their lead in this direction, but more often than not there is no problem to solve, it simply is.
- Practical help
If you can offer practical help, so do. Things like picking the kids up from school, making some meals to put in the freezer or helping to clean the house can go a long way. Always think about how you can take away from the plate, not add to it.
Help support their recovery as best you can. Remind them about taking medications and showering (more so if you live with the person). Help get them to appointments. Take them out for walks or get them out of the house to do something they love like a hobby or sport.
- Listen, properly
The key to someone feeling heard is listening. Sounds simple right? It is not as easy as you may think. Here are some tips for active listening to make someone feel more heard
- Minimise dictations (don’t look at your phone, stop what you’re doing)
- Look at the person when they’re talking
- Don’t interrupt
- Try to process what they are saying, rather than thinking about what to say next
- Ask open-ended questions (not closed questions that require a yes or no) e.g. What has that been like for you? Tell me more about that
- Help them find professional help if they want it
Sometimes people may have their professional supports in place, other times there may be none. There may be a reason that someone hasn’t sought help, or it could be a lack of knowing what’s out there and how to access it. Explore this with the person.
The GP is usually the first port of call and further supports can open up from there. Offer to help make an appointment or go with them if they want. Help break down the stigma of talking about mental health with a professional, including a psychologist. If you have any lived experience, share it. How was your own experience with a therapist, did you find it useful?
The important part of this point is: if they want it. We cannot force people to get treatment or help, and when we do it is largely ineffective as the person has to want to do it. All we can do is make sure they know what help is available, keep gently encouraging them (but be sure not to nag and push them away), and let them know you are always there if they need. The more control a person has over their own treatment, the better the outcomes. So don’t force your agenda onto them
- Check in on them regularly, even if they don’t seem like they need it
Although it can be difficult to tell when a friend or loved one isn’t doing well, checking in with people on a regular basis is one of the best things you can do. Whether you call or send a text message, let them know you’re thinking about them. It’s easy to assume that someone doesn’t need support, but even if they don’t open up and talk about how they feel, your presence itself could reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. One of the first things people who are struggling with mental illness will do is withdraw, so reaching in even when they aren’t reaching out is so important.
It can be really hard to see someone you love or care about go through hard times and suffer. Acknowledge that and allow yourself to feel whatever it is you need to feel about it. Supporting someone through mental illness is a selfless and often thankless task, be kind to yourself and reach out for help and support if you need