It can be difficult to know how to help someone with mental illness — what to say, do, and how to act. Even if you deeply want to support your loved one, it is common to feel lost, afraid, frustrated, and hopeless as you navigate their diagnosis and treatment process. However, social support is essential to helping someone with mental illness; they need to know that you are there for them and that they are not alone in this struggle (1).
What should we do to help others with mental illnesses?
People living with mental illness often feel as if those around them do not understand their experiences, leading to shame, isolation, and even guilt. It may indeed be true that you do not understand exactly what it is they are experiencing; after all, if you have not been through mental illness yourself, it can seem to be a foreign and incomprehensible experience. However, you do not have to know what it is like yourself in order to support your loved one. Instead, give them the space to express their own feelings, listen, and let them know that they are heard. Ask them about what they are going through and reassure them that you do not judge them. By making yourself a safe place for them, you can help prevent them from withdrawing inside their illness and losing contact with the world around them. This is an essential part of setting them up for success, as social support is strongly correlated with better outcomes.
Unfortunately, simply listening can sometimes be an intimidating prospect. You may think that you have to offer solutions or say just the right thing. But in reality, simply giving them the opportunity to talk about their problems can be helpful. You do not have to fix them, come up with the perfect answer to their struggles, or convince them that their feelings are incorrect. Instead, just listen, hear them, and offer validation. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness notes:
Validation is simply the acknowledgment that a person has a feeling, even if we don’t agree that it’s an appropriate feeling to have or the response we would have in similar circumstances; validation sounds like, ‘I can understand that you’re angry right now, that must be difficult.’ Allowing our loved ones to see that we acknowledge what they’re feeling can give them freedom to accept that feeling and move on.Making sure your loved one knows that you acknowledge that their feelings are real and valid regardless of your own perspective can be very powerful.
Many people have preconceived notions about what mental illness looks like but little understanding of the specific symptoms that an illness entails. In a culture where mental illness, particularly severe mental illness, is so often wrapped up in damaging myths, fears, and misconceptions, it is essential to get a clear understanding of your loved one’s condition in order to offer meaningful support. Today, there are infinite online resources that explore mental illness from both clinical and personal perspectives and investigating these can help elucidate what your loved one is going through. You may also wish to speak to mental health professionals or accompany your loved one to a therapy appointment in order to learn more and ask specific questions. This helps you:
- Gain a reality-based understanding of their symptoms.
- Break through damaging myths.
- Learn what their treatment options are.
- Better understand their needs, challenges, and prognosis.
- Identify symptoms they may not recognize.
Not only does this allow you to more clearly see what your loved one is going through and help them feel understood, it will also likely help to alleviate some of your own anxieties and give you direction as you move forward. For many, having concrete, rational information to hold onto helps them avoid catastrophizing and allows them to deal with what is really happening rather than what they fear will happen.
It is vital to remember, however, that each person’s experience of mental illness is unique and doesn’t always align perfectly with textbook definitions or what someone else with the same illness has experienced. As such, it’s important to listen to and acknowledge what your loved one is personally experiencing rather than projecting your own vision of mental illness onto them. Remember too that your loved one is more than their illness, and don’t treat them as if their condition is their whole self.
Things to Avoid Saying:
- “Just pray about it.”
- “You just need to change you’re attitude.”
- “Stop harping on the negative, you should just start living.”
- “Everyone feels that way sometimes.”
- “You have the same illness as my (whoever).”
- “Yes, we all feel a little crazy now and then.”
Things to Avoid Doing:
- Criticizing blaming or raising your voice at them.
- Talking too much, too rapidly, too loudly. Silence and pauses are okay.
- Showing any form of hostility towards them.
- Assuming things about them or their situation.
- Being sarcastic or making jokes about their condition.
- Patronizing them or saying anything condescending (2).