5 Ways To Support A Person Through Mental Illness

A little over a year ago, I decided to unbar my personal journey with mental illness/health. Admittedly, I suffered in silence for quite some time because mental illness is a delicate topic that people tend to shy away from.  However, my goal in choosing to be vocal is to show transparency, shake the table and have tough conversations that are long overdue so that someone can find the inspiration to make their mental health a priority. 

A few weeks ago, there was a heated text exchange between a relative & I over my statement “life is depressing enough.” Immediately, I was met with opposition. Upon further explaining my word choice, rather than validate or acknowledge my illness, this relative chose to center themselves, their beliefs and suggest that I am choosing to speak negatively instead of praying, reflecting on the good and believing in God for healing. This exchange continued to escalate resulting in me shutting down and disengaging from the conversation. I felt like this person could and should have had a better response. I couldn’t imagine ever responding the same way if I had read these messages as the receiver. It was quite mind blowing, honestly. While I’ll happily and openly discuss the subject of mental health, once it becomes apparent that a person is committed to only comprehending the complexities of mental illness from their level of perception rather than with an open mind or with personal biases or religious blinders, it is a conversation that will end rapidly. Knowing when to walk away is always my favorite form of self care. My mental health is not up for debate. 

As with any disease or illness, it’s a lot to process. It changes your interactions with people, how you view yourself and your goals or your hierarchy of needs. And just as much as any diagnosis or prognosis will change you, it changes the people around you. Change is inevitable. Whenever a celebrity succumbs to suicide, we immediately see social media flooded with the quote “Check on your strong friends” For a week or two we’ll see the numbers to suicide prevention of crisis text line circulating and then care will seem so genuine. But when it’s all said and done, how are we responding to the people in our immediate circle when they open up about a mental illness like depression, postpartum woes or seasonal affective disorder despite our religious beliefs? Will we have a preventative approach to help them or reactive response to a drastic life changing measure? Would you rather listen to your friend or loved one vent about a hard time or attend their funeral because mental illness was too much for them to handle alone? 

In the text exchange mentioned above, the moment I replied “I see what you’re trying to do, but it’s not helpful.” The immediate and appropriate response should have been “How can I best support you?” Otherwise, when a person refuses to set their personal feelings aside, it signifies to a person that trusts them that they are not a safe place for them to confide. That’s a horrible feeling. When or if someone seems you a safe place by sharing their struggles or mental health with you, the following is impactful:

5 Ways to Support a Person With Mental Illness

1. Listen. It’s not a time to insert your personal thoughts, ideas or beliefs. Genuinely listen to what their concerns and struggles are and how they need you to show up for them. 

2. Ask. They don’t need to be fixed. There’s no magic wand that will make mental illness go away. Ask permission before sharing anything that you may think will be helpful. Example, if someone shares that they have anxiety about an issue, ask “Can I share with you what I do when I’m feeling anxious?”

3. Learn. Sharing a diagnosis can be hard. What makes it even harder is constantly explaining it to everyone. If your loved one has deemed you as a safe place, take some time to research their specific diagnosis on your own. 

4. Check-in. Mental illness can often cause one to withdraw or isolate. Life can be busy for everyone, but check-in with your friends and loved ones. Even if carrying a conversation is hard for them, knowing they have your love and support is welcomed. 

5. Encourage. Support is important, both socially and professionally. Encourage your loved one to continue (or seek) professional services such as therapy for their mental health. Offer to lend support, but remain insistent that they take steps to treat their concerns. Showing up for themselves is half the battle. 

Overall, bare in mind that you should approach your loved one gently by utilizing both compassion and understanding but never judgment.

If you think someone is considering suicide, you can get help from the suicide prevention at 800-273-8255.

Happy Healing.