How to Help a Loved One Struggling With Mental Illness

As someone who has been in therapy for over 11 years and is very open about mental health, I’ve been asked how you help a loved one who is struggling with mental illness a lot. I think this is important because it means you care about this person and you want to make their situation better. Understanding isn’t always easy. Sometimes we don’t even understand what our brains are doing, but having someone try to understand provides unparalleled comfort.

This is all from my personal experience and what I’ve wanted in crisis. I am not a mental health professional, but this is a basic version of the guide I use when I have a loved one in need. I hope this helps. It’s a big world out there and I’m open to suggestions.

Research the situation. If I want to help my friend who has schizophrenia or a personality disorder, it wouldn’t be effective if I knew nothing about it save for the stereotypes. It’s similar to how a surgeon wouldn’t operate if they didn’t have the X-rays and consultations from previous doctors. A generic Google search can help with this, but I have also found reading personal accounts or watching an interview with someone who has similar health problems to be invaluable. This takes the situation from a clinical point of view and transforms it into living human pain and triumph. This has helped me relate to loved ones’ situations, particularly those I do not naturally understand.

If you are still struggling to understand what they’re going through, ask them how it feels. If you have never experienced panic attacks or PTSD triggers, ask how their body responds. Then imagine you feeling as out of control as they do, maybe even by comparing it to something you’ve gone through. We have all experienced pain; this is an ideal situation to turn it into something that heals.

Do the research for them. I’m not talking about their English paper due next week. I’m talking about coping mechanisms. If your significant other has anxiety attacks, they might feel too overwhelmed to look up how to calm themselves down or implement the mechanisms by themselves. Do deep breathing with them. Tell them it’ll be OK. Help them make lists. If your brother forgets to take his medicine sometimes, set an alarm or write a note and put it on the fridge. Ask your friend how therapy went. If you’re the emergency contact, keep an updated list of medications on you. Oftentimes, reassurance will help with anything, but it’s bound to resonate with your loved one if you invest your time and effort into helping them live their best life.

Depending on certain people,  physical contact can do a world of good. It can make us feel safe and centered and connected. If you’re uneasy with verbal consolation, touch could be an excellent way to help your loved one. For other people, myself included, touch can do the opposite. It makes stomach acid crawl up our throats no matter how well-intended or how much we love the person doing the touching. If you’re unsure if touching will help, just ask if you can hug them or hold their hand. Eventually, using this method, you will know when it is OK to touch and when it is not. Make sure they know they can tell you to stop, too. That way they’ll feel safe to tell you what they need in the future.

Ask what they need. I can be incredibly awkward because of my anxiety, so sometimes I am not the most eloquent person in which to seek comfort. This is perfectly OK. Being there for someone even if you think you “suck” at consolation still shows you care for them, which is what that person could need. This would be a good time to again ask them what they need from you. The human experience is a collective one and compassion is the sustenance of the psyche. It does your loved one no good if you’re jumping through hoops based on assumption, but nothing you’re doing is helping. It is a recipe for interpersonal discord. They could feel as though they’re being smothered and you could feel frustrated and taken for granted. Asking them what they need from you ensures you’re not assuming their needs and they know your focus is unwaveringly on them.

Please remain confidential. Many stories relating to mental illness can be embarrassing, triggering, or scary to talk about. Again, place yourself in their shoes. Would you want something about you in the rumor mill? Even if you wouldn’t care, they might and that’s most important. If you don’t know whether or not you should mention something, err on the side of caution.

There are also some things you should not do.

If you ask someone to talk and they don’t want to, you need to respect that. Sharing our emotions can be difficult for anyone and some people need to process the information on their own and in counseling first. There are other ways to assist a loved one that doesn’t involve talking. For example, learn their triggers. If going to Walmart gives them anxiety attacks, don’t drag them there. If movie theaters make them feel suffocated, hangout somewhere else. Exposure therapy will not work, especially if it’s not on their terms.

Do not just automatically give advice. This is my downfall because I instinctively want to solve all the world’s problems in three seconds, but that’s impossible. Sometimes, the person just wants to talk, whether it be through venting or crying or whatever they need to do in the moment. Constantly interjecting unwanted advice makes anyone feel judged.

If you’re not sure what they want, ask. Validation is so incredibly important. If someone confides in you, do not invalidate them. Even if you think someone is “doing it for the attention,” that person needs to be taken seriously. There are clearly issues going on and someone rejecting them will only do more damage. I don’t know how this stereotype started, but it needs to stop immediately.

If your loved one is on medication, do not tell them mental health pharmaceuticals are a hoax or that you hate to see them on meds. I struggled with my reliance on medications after I was diagnosed and I had people I was close with criticize my decision to take them. It made my diagnosis much more difficult to process. I have never heard anyone tell someone with diabetes that they shouldn’t take their insulin or that a person with a broken arm could take the cast off prematurely and go to physical therapy instead.

Similarly, if your loved one chooses to abstain from medication, you need to respect that. This is difficult for me because I am pro-medicine, but it is not my body and I have no right to dictate how my loved ones seek help.

If any of this feels like an inconvenience to you, it is understandable, but I implore you to think of how robbed your loved one could feel. I know how frustrating it is to want to see a movie even though the environment triggers me. My family and friends know they can still go to the movies without me and they make time to do the things they know I can enjoy, but I’m missing out on certain aspects of my life, their lives. That doesn’t sit easily with me, but they respect what I need to do to be healthy and I love them even more for that. This is how my life is now and I’m so lucky I have people who love me in all the ways I need to be loved.

Finally, please do what is mentally healthy first and foremost. I am still trying to master this, but you can’t be drowning and trying to save everyone else. Sometimes, the best way to help others is to assess what you need emotionally and help yourself first. Then, when you’re ready, you can jump back in the water.

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Unsplash photo via Mather Henry

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