The dos and don’ts of supporting someone with a mental illness
Updated: Jan 30, 2021
By Elliot Mears
If someone you love has a mental health problem, it can be really hard to know how to support them and how best to approach the subject - or even whether to at all. I’ve definitely experienced both sides of this; so, from the perspective of someone with lived experience of mental illness and of trying to support others here are some pointers on how to go about supporting someone in your life who is struggling. No one is going to get everything right when it comes to such a difficult situation and there is no one-size-fits-all way to go about it - but it is always better to try, in my view.
A good place to start is to ask them how they feel you can help them best; like I said above, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. They might say that they don’t want to talk about what they’re struggling with and that is 100% okay - don’t force them to, let them know you’re there if they change their mind but respect their choice not to discuss it with you.
If you’re aware of their diagnosis, do some research online. This can help you get a bit of insight into the kinds of things that are affecting them and how you can best support them. This is especially useful when a loved one is diagnosed with an illness about which there is less public knowledge and a heavier stigma like a personality disorder or psychotic illness. The media’s portrayals of these conditions depict sufferers in a negative light almost all of the time and it’s important to ensure that you are not influenced by this and aren’t swayed by misconceptions. When researching, make sure that you’re using reliable sources; Mind (a UK based mental health charity) provide helpful resources on their website covering a variety of diagnoses and issues so are a good port of call. They give a quick overview of each condition as well as providing information about symptoms in more detail, treatment options, potential causes, self-care strategies and crucially for our purposes - a ‘for friends and family’ section which lists ways you can help someone with a particular condition and other helpful things to keep in mind.
One must also remember that a person with a mental illness is still fundamentally the same person they always have been, so treat them as such. Keep involving them in your social circles and keep them in the loop as you would have done before. Even if they’ve cancelled the last few times you’ve arranged to spend time together. For me, it means a lot to know people still want to be around me even if I’m not always feeling up to it.
It’s human nature to want to solve every problem but you will not be able to and sometimes it’s counterproductive to try. Whilst things like exercise, healthy eating, meditation and simple self-care are good for our mental health, they are not cures and they are not solutions. Those of us living with mental health problems have heard these things touted as the answer to all our problems a thousand times over. If someone has opened themself up to you, a response like ‘have you tried yoga/meditation?’ is a bit of a slap in the face - because the answer is likely yes and even if it isn’t the implication that these kinds of simple lifestyle changes will solve one’s problem undermines the seriousness of the issue at hand. Often the most helpful thing you can do is simply to listen and validate how they’re feeling. You are not a clinician, chances are you won’t be able to ‘fix’ them, but you can listen and that is valuable.
Whilst supporting someone with mental illness it’s important to keep an eye on your own mental health, particularly if you’re a carer or they are requiring a lot of support. Don’t burn yourself out spending huge amounts of emotional energy and time - whilst being a supportive friend, partner or relative is important there have to be some limits, especially if you are not an immediate family member of that person. At the end of the day you can only do so much, you aren’t a professional. Your mental health is important too.