What to Say and What Not to Say to Help Your Loved One With a Mental Illness
I’ve come to realize my honesty seems to provide comfort to people who may be living with mental illness and its associated complications. Up to this point, however, I haven’t fully engaged with a group of people who are so essential to the recovery and wellness of people who are mentally ill: the loved ones of those living with mental illness. If you don’t think you have experienced mental illness yourself, aside from the occasional highs and lows to be expected from life, you likely know and love someone who struggles with mental illness and wonder what you can do to help. Hopefully, I can help with that. I’ve given some thought as to what has been helpful to me – and maybe not so much – when it comes to supporting my mental health.
Maybe Not So Helpful:
“Get well soon!”
This is said with undoubtedly the best intentions, and I recognize that. The trouble with responding to a “get well” or “feel better soon” is that I’m managing what is anything but a linear illness, and I might not get “well” soon at all. There seems to be an added pressure with mental illness to feel better quickly and “snap out of it” that doesn’t exist with other illnesses, in part because depression is uncomfortable and we don’t have a social script for it. Because it is an illness of the mind and there are often no physical symptoms to focus upon and treat, I sometimes feel pressure to bully myself out of my depression through sheer willpower. This is certainly difficult to do when my brain is on the injured reserve list. The only thing I know for sure is there are good days and bad days in my future, like with many other chronic illnesses.
Maybe try: “Take care of yourself.”
“I know exactly how you feel.”
A violation of one of the most important rules of interpersonal support is assuming you know exactly how someone feels. Everyone is coming to the table with their own set of genetics, psychology, biological and social factors that influence their every perception. There is no possible way for you know exactly how someone feels. Using this phrase expresses the opposite of what you likely intended: that you want to relate and help your loved one feel less alone. In practice, however, you may have dismissed their feelings as trivial and invalidated their individual struggle.
Maybe try: “I can understand how that could be exhausting. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.”
“Have you tried…?”
Another expression where I recognize the effort and desire to help; however, it could come across as dismissive and condescending. Have I tried… yoga? Meditation? Have I tried not being sad? Chances are if I’m sharing with you how things are not going well, I’ve exhausted many of the suggestions I’ve gleaned from friends, doctors, the internet — and I’m still struggling. Treatment for mental illness is very individualized, where the right combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes will be unique for every person. This is not to say you shouldn’t share your success stories — just keep in mind that your loved one is still fighting to uncover what works for them.
Maybe try: “What have you tried so far and how has it helped?”
When someone is hurting, it can be difficult to know what to do to help. We are compelled to say things like, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” because it sounds nice and feels like the right thing to say. A person experiencing mental illness may struggle to recognize what they need, never mind finding the words and the courage to ask for it. My favorite example of this in action was when my best friend recognized I was frozen by everything I needed to do and didn’t have time to clean my untidy apartment. While I was at work, she came by armed with her cleaning supplies and scrubbed the place clean. I hadn’t asked her to do this, but the gesture was so thoughtful and welcome.
Be a generous listener.
Being a generous listener means being present and engaged with the conversation, asking thoughtful questions and allowing the person to speak on the subject as long as they want. The greatest gift you can give another person is your time and your undivided attention, so look for those opportunities to entirely focus on your loved one.
“I will be with you.”
There are times where I am fearful the symptoms of mental illness push people away and that the longer my condition doesn’t improve, the more likely my loved ones will pull back from me. The most comforting thing I could hear in those moments of doubt is that you will be there. As a loved one of someone with mental illness, you are essential to creating a safety net in which someone can recover and knowing you will be with me reminds me I’m not fighting this alone.
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Unsplash photo via Kelly Sikkema