“Sometimes we need someone to simply be there. Not to fix anything or do anything in particular, but just to let us feel supported and cared about.” – Unknown
May is Mental Health Month. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults in the US will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. Even if you do not personally suffer from a mental illness, it is likely that you know someone who does.
It is a natural instinct to want to help your loved one. Friends and family members often love and support one another unconditionally. Yet, when loved ones are suffering from a mental illness, it can sometimes be hard to know what to say or do. Words of support can feel empty, and pieces of advice may seem rude.
Dr. Lloyd I. Sederer, M.D., an adjunct professor at the Columbia/Mailman School of Public Health and chief medical officer of the New York State Office of Mental Health, further explains these feelings of uncertainty in his blog on Psychology Today:
“When a loved one has heart disease or cancer, families rally around – they cook, clean, drive their loved ones to doctor’s appointments, give pep talks, and much more. But when someone is struggling with depression, anxiety, trauma, or other mental conditions, family members are not sure what to do, which can be heartbreaking when what they want more than anything is to help their loved one.”
The 7 “Ls” of Support
When someone is physically hurt, we are taught at a young age that grabbing a first aid kit or calling 911 can help someone with a physical injury. Similarly, family and friends can learn the appropriate starting steps to gain the confidence needed in supporting loved ones with a mental illness.
Here are 7 steps that you can take to support a loved one suffering from a mental illness:
- Love. While it may sometimes feel like the hardest to do, loving someone with mental illness is the first step and foundation to ensure you are providing quality care.
- Learn. Familiarize yourself with common signs and symptoms of mental illness. That way you have a better idea of what your loved one is experiencing.
- Lean. Get the help that YOU need from others. Find resources that can help you manage your own feelings and frustrations. Find appropriate coping mechanisms through meeting a licensed healthcare provider, consulting with a therapist, reading books about the illness or ways to cope, or joining support groups (either in person or over the Internet). NAMI provides a list of programs here.
- Listen. As NAMI states: “Give your loved one the gift of having someone who cares about their unique experience.” Really listen to your loved one – before giving advice or sharing resources. Encourage them to share their feelings, whether they are good or bad. This demonstrates that you care and are not being dismissive or judgmental.
- Low-key. Try to take frustration, anger and disappointment out of the equation before talking with your loved one. Gather yourself and your thoughts before approaching your loved one. Ask them questions such as, “How can I best support you right now?” or “Can I help you find mental health services and support?”
- Look after. Check-in regularly and let them know that you are source of support. Ask them if they want to go to a movie or go for a walk. Even if the loved one is not in the right state-of-mind to join you or to talk, someone reaching out to them with love can go a long way.
- Limits. Make your own self-care a priority and ensure you are setting appropriate boundaries. Without caring for yourself first, it will be more difficult to help a loved one on their journey.