Nearly twenty percent of the population in Canada and the United States is intimately aware of the struggle that mental health challenges face. Chances are you know someone who was or is mentally ill. It can be so hard watching someone you love experience such difficulty with their own health. The fact that there is seemingly nothing that you can do can often make it even worse. While no one expects a miracle cure to drop from the sky, or a magical set of phrases that will banish the illness forever, many loved ones are eager for some action they can take to help. There are a few things you can do that may seem small, but have the potential to make a huge difference.
Obviously no two people are alike, and not every suggestion will work perfectly every time. Still, keeping these basic recommendations in mind does have the potential to be incredibly beneficial to someone you care about. In addition, it gives you something actionable you can do yourself, which can alleviate some of the helplessness you likely feel.
1. Stay In Touch
An unwillingness or inability to socialize is a common symptom many people experience. As a friend, it can be hard to watch your formerly up-for-anything friend avoid their phone. It might seem that your friend is trying to avoid all contact, or maybe even that they’re making a ghosting attempt. In reality, we hate avoiding life and social connections as much as our friends do. In some cases, the illness as conjured up a million different reasons to never leave the house. In others we just lack the energy to move. Battling your brain on every issue every second of every day is exhausting.
Even if you’re convinced your friend does not want to go out, ask anyway. Even if you are one hundred percent sure your text will go unanswered, send it anyway. For starters, by not inviting them, you rob them of their own agency in the situation. It’s nice to have the choice, even if our illness does have the final say. It also reminds us that we do have friends out there, beyond the bell jar, who are there for us when we recover. Finally, it also tells us who we can lean on if things get too bad, and we need a supportive friend.
2. Be Encouraging
People who are mentally ill, especially those who suffer from depressive episodes, are fantastic at negative self talk. We can talk ourselves down from virtually any high; it’s a remarkably useless and self-defeating skill. When we’re in those episodes, there are a million things we haven’t done that we should have done yesterday. This includes important adult tasks like cleaning up, socializing with others, and leaving the house. Being the stellar negative self-talkers that we are, there is a steady stream of “you should have” or ” you should be doing” running through our heads at all times.
We should on ourselves constantly. When you visit your loved one, avoid the “sh” word at all costs. Of course it’s perfectly reasonable for you to get frustrated with your loved one because there is something they honestly should be doing. If possible, try to rephrase the statement to avoid the word. The message doesn’t need to change at all, but removing that dreaded “sh” word can actually help your friend feel more motivated to complete that task. For example, instead of “it’s been seven days; you should really think about leaving the house” try “it’s a nice day, did you want to go grab a tea with me?” The effect is the same, but it circumvents that train of negative self-talk, instead of giving it fuel.
3. Be Careful With Language
One of the advantages of having mental health on a consistent basis, or so I would imagine, is being able to use loaded terms without thought. In the last week I’ve heard phrases like “she’s your crazy ex-girlfriend, right?”, “he’s insane”, and “what a lunatic” uttered in situations where the subject had behaved erratically or with malicious intent. There is a huge difference between behavior that is mean, cruel, or strange and being mentally ill. When words like that are thrown around in situations like that enough, they can become synonymous with that additional behavior as well. “Crazy” could very well mean “mentally ill” in one situation and “completely evil” in the next. This type of language helps to perpetuate some very dangerous myths about mental illness. Myths can sometimes prevent people from seeking treatment and can affect how others treat the mentally ill.
One of the smallest but most impactful things you can do is to start to watch your own language and to correct others when they misuse certain terms. I used to have an employer who used “bipolar” as her slang for “difficult, mean, and unpredictable”, even after she knew I have that same mental health issue. It wasn’t enough to make me quit, but it did hurt each time I heard her use the phrase. It also made me wonder what she thought of me, as someone with bipolar. If she felt comfortable consistently using “bipolar” when she meant “unpredictable” and “mean”, did that mean she thought I was unpredictable and mean? If I see you post a meme on your Facebook wall drawing a line between someone who is evil and someone who simply has a mental illness, does that mean you think I too am evil? Think about the impact your words might have on your loved one, and make those small adjustments where you can. After all, you’d hate it if your loved one started using your struggles as slang for complete and utter evil.
4. Learn More About Mental Health
There really is power in knowledge. The more we know about something, the less strange, scary, or different it becomes. If you’ve tried the suggestions above and still want to do more, a fantastic place to start is the internet. No, really. Learning all you can about the mental health struggles your loved one is going through is invaluable. It might give you an extra bit of insight into behaviour you might not have understood before. Learning more will also help give you tips and ideas for other ways you can help.
It’s important to stick to reputable sites, and to remember that every person is different. Some strategies simply won’t work. Try not to get frustrated or to let this stop you from learning more. Trust me, you will not make things worse by earnestly trying to learn as much as you can. Some starting points include:
Looking for more information? Talk with your loved one. Treat the topic with respect and avoid using accusatory, inflammatory, or stigmatizing language. There is a very good chance that your loved one will appreciate you taking the time to learn about their mental health struggles, and may be able to give you tips on how to help them in the future.
5. Don’t Forget About You
In your efforts to take care of your loved one, don’t forget to take care of you too. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Trying too hard to take care of someone else when you need some time to yourself can wind up making things worse for everyone. Your friend may sense that they are causing you distress, and you may start struggling with feelings of resentment and exhaustion yourself. Take the time away that you need when you need to.
If you are worried about your loved one, and feel that they need more help than they are currently receiving, don’t be afraid to reach out to experts. As a friend or family member, you are not expected to also act as their psychiatrist. You can reach out to a local agency in your community to get advice, or call the helplines run by one of the agencies listed above. It might feel wrong or sneaky, but trying to get your friend the help they need when they can’t reach out themselves is always for the greater good. Many of us wouldn’t be here today if our friends hadn’t intervened, pulled strings, or helped us get professional help when friendly support wasn’t enough.