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Supporting Someone with a Mental Illness
Mental health problems can be devastating for those affected. They may affect relationships, ability to work, and even ability to simply function on a day-to-day basis. Those concerned may experience huge changes in their behaviour. However, mental illness also affects those around the person concerned.
This is partly because the behavioural changes may be extreme, and cause stress and discomfort for others. However, it is also because it is hard to see those we love and care for struggling with illness of any kind, physical or mental. This page discusses what you can do to support someone with a mental illness.
There is No ‘One Size Fits All’
As with so many issues in this world, there is very much no ‘one size fits all’ about providing support to someone with a mental illness.
How you support someone will depend on both you, and the person with the illness, as well as your relationship. Friends and acquaintances, for example, will play a very different role from a spouse, partner, parent or child.
Mental Health and Relationships: Your Support Matters
The scientific evidence is irrefutable: relationships matter hugely to our mental health.
One of the longest-running studies in the world, at Harvard University, has been studying a cohort since the 1930s to see what helps us to live long and happy lives. What they have found is perhaps surprising.
Looking after your physical health matters, but what made the biggest difference to the health of the research participants was the number and quality of relationships. In other words, your relationships with others really matter for your health and happiness.
As a side note, this is one reason why there is a whole branch of psychiatry devoted to managing and improving interpersonal relationships, know as interpersonal psychiatry. You can find out more about this at BetterHelp.
Providing the Right Support
How, then, can you best help someone with a mental illness? Here are some ideas that may help you.
Try to understand more about the diagnosis and how it affects the other person
Ignorance is very definitely NOT bliss when it comes to mental health problems. Try to find out more about the illness or condition concerned. There is reliable information on the websites of mental health charities, or organisations focused on that particular condition, and also on the sites of many mental healthcare providers.
It is also a good idea to talk to the other person about their condition.
They may experience specific symptoms, and have specific coping strategies that you could support in a particular way. You can also work together to set out roles and responsibilities. Having a set of ‘house rules’ can be particularly helpful if you live together.
Listen and encourage them to seek help
One of the most important things that you can do for someone with a mental illness is simply listen and be there.
Ask questions about how they are feeling, and what they need—and then help them to access that support (which may or may not be from you).
You can also encourage them to seek treatment, and provide support to help them get that treatment. For example, if someone is anxious about going to the doctor, you could offer to go with them.
Recovering from mental health problems takes time.
Indeed, for many people, these conditions are lifelong: they simply learn how to manage them, and have better and worse times.
It is important to remember this, and not blame them (or yourself) because they are having a worse day, week or month, or progress simply seems very slow.
Encourage independence—in small steps if necessary
Try to avoid doing everything for the other person. It is really important to help them maintain their independence, even if they are struggling to make the most basic decisions (such as what to wear or when to eat), or to get out of bed in the morning.
Try agreeing some boundaries together about what you are prepared to do—and then make sure that you stick to them. Encourage them to do things for themselves, and agree what they will do. For example, you might agree that they have to get up by a certain time, and make their own breakfast each day, or that they have to shower or bath at least every other day.
Have a crisis or emergency plan
Sometimes things go wrong. You need to have a plan in place for what you will do if so.
The other person may already have a crisis plan developed by a community mental health team. If so, you need to understand what it involves, and what will trigger it. If not, it may be helpful to put one together, preferably involving the other person. Agree who will be contacted, and under what circumstances, and make sure that you have all the contact details available.
Look after yourself too—and don’t be afraid to ask for help
Take time for yourself, away from the other person. This may be especially difficult if you are living together, but it is essential.
If you need it, don’t be afraid to ask for help—and before anything becomes a crisis.
Your local authority or healthcare provider may be able to provide some help and support. For example, it may be possible to organise for a carer to come in for a few hours each week to sit with the other person, so that you can get out without worrying about them. You need to do this before the situation affects your own mental or physical health, too.
Remember, you will not be able to help anyone else or continue to provide support if you are struggling to cope.
You also need to remember that you are not responsible if things go wrong. Support can only go so far, and you are important too.
About the Author
Melissa has been writing content for SkillsYouNeed since 2013. She holds an MBA and previously worked as a civil servant and. Now with a young family, she is learning all about applying her skills to real life.