The Do’s and Don’ts of Helping a Loved One with A Mental Illness
Updated: Oct 16, 2019
Mental health issues are common in the United States and fortunately more people are starting to be open about their struggles. If you aren’t facing a mental illness it’s likely that you have friends or loved ones that suffer from a mental health condition. In many cases you may be wondering, “How do I help them? What can I do to make things better? Do I have to sit back and watch on the sidelines?” The good news is that you aren’t helpless, and there are many things you can do for your loved ones
DISCLAMER: This is intended for people who know someone who has a mental health condition that was diagnosed by a professional. Do not attempt to diagnose loved ones. Express concerns and ask them to seek professional help.
Read up on your loved one’s diagnosis. Seek out information on: Common misconceptions.Truths of the diagnosis. Paths to recovery and healing. Is this a lifelong issue?
Seek out stories from people who have the disorder, as well as stories from loved ones. This can be important to find empathy for your loved one as well as finding resources to practically apply the information you have gathered. This can be helpful in avoiding the common mistakes loved ones often make.
Many people find it difficult to continue to be in relationship with people who have mental health issues. Be courageous in relationship with them. Continue to love and support them in ways that are “normal” when you can. Not changing how you relate to them can create space for them to be “normal,” as well as help them feel loved and accepted. When things do get hard, try not to pull away.
Seek Professional Help
Loved ones are great advocates for getting help for those suffering, but seeking counseling for yourself is equally important. Professionals can be a wealth of knowledge and can help you create a plan for healthy boundaries, dealing with crisis, and helping you stick to those plans. The can help you screen for problems and learn more about the mental health issue at hand. A good professional will give you the tools you need in order to work themselves out of a job.
Seek Support Groups
These are a wealth of information and experience. People in these groups can aid in finding resources, share tips for avoiding unhelpful tactics, and are generally willing to listen and help you when you’re not doing well. They get it.
This is tempting to fall into. When people are struggling with their mental health, they often need assistance, but at times you end up doing things for your loved ones that they can do for themselves. I like the gym as a metaphor in this situation. If I do the workout for others, I get strong… not them. Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves. It will help them learn how to be normal and feel normal. Seek information about codependency or the “drama triangle” (see this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_XSeUYa0-8 ) and learn how to hold boundaries in these situations.
Create a Support Network
You will need the help of family and friends. Isolation is dangerous for people in general, even more so when helping. Make sure people know what you are going through and ask for support when needed. Sometimes you need a workout partner, ice cream, or a loving listening ear. Know who these people are and ask them if you can lean on them during your helping journey.
Communication can be hard in general. Assuming is just dangerous communication when there are problems afoot. In cases of mental health issues, assumptions can short circuit the empathy and comfort you are trying to give your loved ones. Instead, ask questions and see if you are correct. Allow them to tell you their own nuanced perspective and allow yourself to be corrected. Ask permission when trying to help or do something nice. Give advice sparingly or when requested.
It’s easy to run yourself into the ground when someone you love is not doing well. You want to be the best you when helping, because you’ll give the best help when you’re the best you! You can’t give someone 5 bucks when you only have 4. Remember to get enough sleep, eat, exercise, take care of your responsibilities, and stay connected to your support network. You’re in this for the long haul. It will likely be a marathon and not a sprint.
Finally, the truth is that we all have struggles. We all need a helping hand at times, and it’s important to reach out to God who is never tired or weary in times of discouragement.
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:28-29 (NLT)