How do you support a loved one with a mental illness?
It can be difficult to know what to say or how to help someone who is experiencing mental health issues. Our instinct, often with those close to us, is to be solution focused and to advise. But how useful is this approach?
We have all seen news reports over the years and the unkind media content that surrounds individuals and celebrities when they are in crisis with their mental health. Britney Spears, Frank Bruno, Gail Porter and more recently the quite upsetting coverage of the deterioration in Kanye West's health. I was actually quite moved by Kim Kardashian's response to the recent media attention and the difficulties presented when trying to support Kanye West. 'Powerless' is how she describes feeling when trying to enable her husband to access help and support. This is a word echoed by many people I have worked with over the years.
The mistake that many of us make is two fold. Firstly, we wait until someone is already ill or at crisis point before we start to have the much needed conversations. I have often heard relatives say to me that they are fearful of having chats about their son/ daughters illness when they are 'well' or in 'a good place' as it feels that this may 'bring on' the illness itself or they may relapse. This is not accurate, try and remember that it is not the having of a conversation that makes someone become unwell but rather the lack of conversation. Prevention and building resilience is key to managing your mental health, and in order to do that we need to 'normalise' conversations around mental health and the way we think and talk about it. It needs to have parity with our physical well-being. We have our five a day to maintain good physical health, so lets start earlier discussions about maintaining mental health. 'What is your #fivewaystowellbeing' is a good tool to begin these discussions.
The second issue is the actual conversation itself, we have an intrinsic need as a human being to go into difficult situations trying to 'fix' the issue, to make it all better, because ultimately this makes us feel better. However when we approach in this manner, it makes people feel like a 'problem' that you are trying to 'solve' and they immediately become defensive.
when we try and 'fix' people or help 'solve' the issue of their mental health, it makes them feel like a 'problem' that needs to be solved
So how do we help?
In my experience both professionally and personally, the answer lies with how we communicate. Firstly, listen, really listen. No matter how much you disagree or how bizarre someone may sound, never underestimate the power of feeling heard. Think about the last time you sat down with someone and they actually 'heard' you. It feels very powerful to be listened, to be heard and you will be surprised that sometimes that is all you will need to do. Secondly express concern in a kind way, let individuals know that you have noticed a change in them but say it in a way that acknowledges you care. 'I'm concerned about you' 'I've noticed you don't seem yourself' are simple ways to show empathy and compassion.
Lastly, empower people. When someone is becoming unwell, the overriding emotion is that of fear, they are scared. This fear is exacerbated by a loss of control or losing control partly because everyone is telling you what to do. In our need to help and support others, we forget to ask individuals what help and support they actually feel they need. A good tool to enable others to gain control back are open questions, 'how can I help?' 'what can I do to help?' ' 'how long have you felt like this?' are just some simple questions that empower and enable people to think through their own 'solutions' and strategies.
Prevention and Communication
I have often said in discussions and training sessions that no one ever wakes up one morning with a mental illness, you do not just become mentally ill. There are always early warning signs that someone's health is deteriorating. Learn to understand both yours and others signs, it is usually a 'change' from what is 'normal' for you or them. Pay attention to your stress levels. Unmanaged stress is a precursor to developing many mental and physical health issues. So next time you say, 'I'm just stressed' or they're just stressed' this may be the early warning sign being displayed. I will leave you with a quote I use all the time from my most favourite author Maya Angelou
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
I have made my own mistakes over the years when trying to help and support others. Ultimately though, as long as you communicate with empathy, honesty and affection, no matter how ill someone is, they will hear your love and support in time. Give them that time.