Supporting a loved one with mental illness

By Nishaya Ahmed

Much like physical illnesses, watching a loved one struggle with a mental illness can be particularly heart-wrenching. Oftentimes, you’re left on the sidelines, wondering how you can help and provide support. Understanding the dos and don'ts on how to best provide this support can be the best help you can give in their journey through this period.

Firstly, it is important to know the warning signs of mental health problems. Some of the more common signs include withdrawal from social interactions, concerning changes in appetite, sleep, personal hygiene, and/or problems functioning in day-to-day activities, work, or school. It is not unusual to witness these changes from your loved one and to imagine the worst-case scenario. Remember that a mental illness may not be the cause for these changes; other stressors can influence these changes as well. Hence, an assessment from a mental health professional is often necessary to address any mental health concerns and fend off more serious symptoms. 

Before an assessment can be made, however, you must talk with your loved one about their issue. This is perhaps one of the hardest actions to take. Confrontation and helping them acknowledge that they need help must be done without judgment. Though you don’t require expert knowledge to help your loved one acknowledge their issue, you must express your willingness to listen without judgment and concern for your loved one’s well-being. Be patient, both with yourself and with your loved one, and avoid using alarmist language or place blame. You might say, “I’ve noticed you don’t seem like yourself lately” and try to follow up these statements with observations made regarding the concerning symptoms they’ve exhibited, such as their hygiene or changes in appetite. Encourage them to speak with a mental health professional and remind them that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but that of strength. 

You could also educate yourself on the different mental health illnesses, the symptoms, possible treatments, and side effects of these potential treatments from verified sources. Misinformation can be harmful to both you and your loved one. Try and engage in honest conversations about how they’re feeling, what their concerns are and how you could be of help to them. You could also try to anticipate certain needs of your loved ones that may be overshadowed by the mental illness and help minimize any distractions for effective help-seeking. Research potential therapists with your loved ones and alleviate their concerns about opening up to a stranger. Figure out where the best mental health services are, the costs of these services, and devise communication tools to inform employers or teachers about these issues. Having a mental illness can make them feel like they are losing control, so it is very important to not over-involve yourself in your loved ones' lives and allow them to take responsibility and feel a sense of control wherever possible.

Supporting a loved one with mental illness can be draining, both physically and emotionally and so you must also take care of yourself. Set boundaries and recognize your limits when it comes to giving. It is entirely normal to feel shame and guilt about your loved one’s mental health diagnosis but it is important to remember you are not to blame. Find others who can provide a mutual understanding of your experience from support groups and seek therapy for clarity. 

Perhaps one of the most important things to remember when supporting a loved one with mental illness is that recovery is not linear. If one day you feel there has been progress, the next day may be full of setbacks. On those days of progress, recognize and praise your loved one’s strength and progress, and on other days, remind them of their strength and give them hope. Even if you feel your actions have not made much of a difference, it may be that your loved one simply does not have the language to express their appreciation. When someone is hurting, it is difficult to focus on anything but the pain. So, knowing they have support can be monumental to their recovery. Above all, perhaps the best support you can provide your loved ones is to have hope and choose to love them, even when they feel unlovable. 

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