While mental illness is just like any other physical health problem or ailment, supporting a loved one who’s afflicted with a mental health issue can present some unique challenges. It’s not always easy to “see” signs of mental illness, and for friends and family of a person struggling with one, it can be hard to know how to best offer support.
Dani Singer, founder of Therapy Threads and licensed marriage and family therapist, offers some advice for those wondering how to help those they care about with sensitivity and without stepping over certain boundaries.
“First of all, definitely educate yourself about the mental illness your friend or family member is struggling with. Try not to let the stigma get to you,” Singer said. “Mental illness is just like a physical health problem/illness, so try to treat it as such. Educate others to spread awareness and knowledge. One in four people have a mental illness, so even if you aren’t personally impacted, you likely know someone who is.”
Singer encourages empathy and understanding. “Treat them with love, compassion and support. Don’t judge. Don’t criticize or minimize them and what they’re going through. Listen, ask questions and be curious. Try to put yourself in their shoes, empathize with them and validate their feelings, even if there are things you don’t agree with. Remember, you don’t have to agree with someone to still validate their experience. Try to understand why it makes sense to them to feel the way they do. And BEFORE you try to offer advice or problem solve, know that what most people want more than ANYTHING is to feel listened to and understood. Then and only then are they likely to listen to your advice or seek further help.”
It can be hard to not come across as pushy or insensitive, but the onus is on the caregiver. Understand that recognizing and healing a mental illness can be very difficult for your loved one to do. Singer said, “Encourage your loved one to seek help if they haven't already. Refer them to psychologytoday.com to find a local provider and encourage them to schedule with several therapists to "shop around" for the right fit - just like you would for a car or clothing. Remind them that there are over 100 therapy treatments and that each therapist is different. The process of finding the right fit can take time, but it could mean the difference between successful treatment and unsuccessful treatment.”
Often, someone who’s seeking therapy tries only one therapist and/or gets discouraged or writes off the entire process as a waste of time or money. It’s important for an individual to be patient with themselves and with the therapy, and give to it time to start making a difference.
Just like if you’re supporting or caregiving for someone with a physical illness, it’s essential to also be sure to exercise self-care. As Singer elaborates, “Absolutely! Take care of yourself! Dealing with a loved one's mental illness can be stressful, so don't forget to put your own self-care first so you can be there in the most healthy and helpful way for your loved ones. It's easy to get wrapped up in someone else or to put someone who's struggling needs before your own, but that won't help anyone. Managing your own stress, health, and well-being will be the best thing you can do for yourself and everyone else! Then you will be better able to be there for them, in a calm, mindful way.”
Remember these tips next time you approach a loved one who may be struggling with a mental illness. Really make an effort to think about how to best show compassion and empathy not just during Mental Health Month, but every month hereafter.