• Ashleigh Kendall

Supporting a loved one with mental illness

Being there for someone you love whilst they experience any form of mental illness can be a really tough time for everyone involved. You might be confused as to why they are feeling the way they are, you may be upset and hurting too - just seeing them battle with their minds each day. There will no doubt be some questions you have about their mental illness and how you can help them through their darkness, and also maintain your own wellness as you do so. 

Recovery is unique

Firstly, understanding that the human experience is different for everyone and how you support someone with mental illness will be unique to them. There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to recovery. With that in mind, take the time to educate yourself about their mental illness, ask questions about how you can help. Sometimes it might be helping them with household chores and other times it might just simply being company while they get through the day. Encourage them to learn and understand more about their mental illness too - this will really help them take steps forward as they understand how their mind is functioning while they are feeling unwell. 

Learning about the illness, if diagnosed, can really provide insight into what that person is experiencing and will be much easier for you to process how things are for them. Brainstorm sources of distress/ triggers together and what symptoms they are experiencing. Encourage communication and check in to see how they are tracking. Try and identify any early warning signs of becoming unwell so you can provide extra support during those times. 

Encourage professional help

It can be super difficult to open up to anyone about your distress, let alone a stranger. It can feel super scary just taking that first step, often people will put it off as long as they can. No one needs to struggle alone however and if you can encourage your loved one to open up and then accompany them to a health professional then that might be exactly the kind of help they need to take that first step to wellness. 

There are many treatment options available, depending on the illness. Sometimes that might be medication, sometimes therapy, sometimes both. Treatment is unique to everyone, we all walk our own path and it might last a period of months, or it might be a number of years. If medication is prescribed and they choose to take it, educate yourself about what side effects there might be, any risks and what the plan going forward with the medication is. Help your loved one understand how the medication might affect them, especially in the early days as it can be a bit of a rocky journey as the first one they try might not work right away and there may need to be some adjustments made to the medication until the doctor figures out the right medication and dosage. It may not be as simple as taking a pill and everything is immediately better.

There is no need to rush. The important point is, reach out to a health professional and find support. Remember, for any treatment to work to its best effect, the person has to commit and want recovery for themselves, not because someone pushed them to it. Be gentle and just be there with them until they can take that step. Often once they have taken the first step which is opening up to anyone for the first time, the subsequent steps forward become a little easier. 

Remind them that seeking professional help doesn’t make them weak, less human or defective in any way. It is extremely courageous and admirable for someone to stand up and ask for help. 

Taking responsibility for wellness

Discuss some responsibilities you can both take on a day to day basis, expect those to be upheld. Getting on your feet when you are suffering from mental illness can be really daunting and some days will be hard and extra encouragement will be required. Try not to become frustrated or upset with them on the harder days. Gently and kindly help them up onto their feet and take one step forward at a time. Sometimes it will feel really slow and that is totally okay! 

See if you can work out a daily routine that they stick to. Remind them that they don’t have to want to do anything, they don’t need to feel good or like it - they just have to show up and do the right thing for their wellness. Recovery takes commitment and discipline like a job would, setting up some structure can be really beneficial. 

Find meaning in the struggle

Recovery is hard work and can take a long time, show them that you are committed to wellness and that they are important, your actions will have meaning and help them see their worth even if they don’t feel like it. There will be good days and hard days. That is normal. 

Remind them of things that are important to them to keep working through recovery for. When people have some meaning in their life, the meaning works like a little glimmer of hope to keep going. It might seem like a big ask but everyone has a passion for something, even if it seems buried under layers of mental illness, try and find what it is and encourage them to think about it and picture what the future might look like with that meaning. Visualisation is a powerful tool. 

Make a plan for tough days

Walking with someone through their distress can be really tough on you as well, they may challenge you and their behaviour may seem confusing at times. Understandably, this can be very distressing for all involved. Having a plan you can both fall back on can be really helpful. Set some boundaries and guidelines within the plan that you can both follow.

It is also very helpful to work out a safety or crisis plan that you can both agree to for when times seem impossible. If you can, find a health professional who can help talk you through this but if not simply knowing who you can call for help and what to do in times of crisis is crucial. 

Remember, that although you do want to help this person, you are not to blame if things do escalate and responsibility for recovery and wellness lies within their own actions too. When someone is suffering from mental illness, recovery doesn't work without action and that action has to come from within. If you are concerned for your own or their safety then seek advice right away. You are not a trained professional and it is not your job to provide that level of support for someone. 

You don’t have to know the answers

Sometimes people who are supporting those with mental illness feel like they don’t have the answers and become reluctant to engage in conversation about hard issues as they feel they need to be able to fix everything. Most of the time however, your loved one doesn't want you to give them the answers, they just want someone to listen. To be there. To feel supported and worthy. Just being there is enough. You aren't there to save them, just be there to help them walk through their pain and struggle. 

Mental illness can be really isolating. Simply let them know they aren’t alone and they are important to you. It seems small but it will go along way and mean a lot to your loved one. It will inspire and encourage them to keep moving forward. You don’t have to have answers. 

Ask them questions to keep the conversation going and to help them open up. Sometimes just hearing their thoughts is therapy in itself and being there to listen can really facilitate healing in many ways. 

Give attention to your own self care

Remember that through this journey, it is essential you take care of your own mental health and wellbeing too. You can’t pour from an empty cup and if it is becoming too overwhelming then make sure you have back up and you reach out to them for help. Lead by example, take care of you!

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