10 tips for near and dear ones of people with mental health issues (translated)

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I’ve heard that one in every third person suffers or has suffered from mental health problems. That would implicate that that everyone had a family member, friend, partner or acquaintance who struggles with mental health problems. In other words, basically everyone is related or close to a person who has a mental health disorder, even if they’re not always aware of it. When I tell someone about my diagnoses, they sometimes share their own history of illness (they might not have an official diagnosis or sought professional help). They frequently, begin their story with the words “I’ve never told anyone about this before, but…” Often, the person is someone who seems to have a good life, who seems happy and satisfied. A person you’d never expect to have mental health problems.

If anyone you know has shared their problems/difficulties/diagnosis with you, don’t be scared. Be assured that they trust you and consider you a good friend (However, choosing to not tell someone about one’s problems is not the same thing as implying that you are a “bad friend”. There are many reasons to keep such things to yourself, many of which have nothing to do with others). Dealing with a loved ones’ mental issues and figuring out how to help them is hard. Naturally, id depends on the situation, but here are some general advice:

1. Gather as much information about the disorder as you can. It seems obvious, but where to look? Starting off with searching the internet and reading books is a good idea. If you want to get a better understanding of the practical problems that come along with the condition, I strongly recommend you to go to internet forums (there are forums for basically every diagnosis and relatives/ near and dear ones are usually welcome) or blogs/vlogs (video-blogs often found on youtube).
Did you know that it’s psychologists and other mental health workers job to not only support their patient, but the patient’s near and dear ones as well? If you have that kind of relationship with your loved one, make an appointment with the person/ team who diagnosed/ is treating them. They can give you a lot of information about both the diagnosis, treatment, what difficulties your loved one has and how to handle them. You can visit them by yourself, or, even better, with your loved on. Knowledge is a great first step.

2. Talk to the person with the disorder! No one knows the situation better than the person who is in it. Again, it seems obvious, but discussing mental health issues is very tough for a lot of people. Don’t be scared to raise the question what difficulties they experience, how you can help them or how their treatment is going. Try to be curious and open minded, but do not force it. Sometimes, one doesn’t have the strength to talk about everything at once, or even talk at all. Try again some other day or ask your loved one to let you know when they are ready.
Ask the person to clarify until you understand what they mean. Some people don’t like discussing their diagnosis (especially if they disagree with it), but to the majority of the people I know, including myself, having close ones showing interest in my difficulties and progress is a big relief.
It can be beneficial to have that kind of conversation in the presence of the psychologist or other mental health worker who diagnosed/ is treating your loved one.
Don’t know where to begin? Start with the diagnosis criteria and ask your friend/partner/family member/student/ co-worker in what way they met the criteria. What symptoms do they have and how do they manifest themselves?
Remember: These kind of conversations are never over. You need to update yourself on your loved one’s current situation continuously. Time, therapy and life can change everything.

3. Remember, no one is defined by their diagnosis. Statements like “you are that way because you have…” or “You only think/feel/say that because you have…” are offending. I attend a school for people with Aspergers/autism/ADD/ADHD/OCD and similar diagnoses, and many, including myself, have experienced it: people mistaking my personality for a symptom. Of course there exist behaviors that can be directly linked to disorders, but before you point them out, think about if it really is constructive. Will it make them more self-aware or increase the likelihood of them seeking help? Say it, but be tactful. If it doesn’t, keep it to yourself. “You are boyish because you have aspergers” doesn’t help anyone.

4. Take them seriously. Even if the person’s reactions, feelings, thoughts and behavior seem unrealistic or unreasonable to you, they are very real to your loved one. Saying things like “You just have to be more positive” or “just snap out of it” is not comforting, but putting the blame on them. You are not talking to a person who is having a bad day, but with a person who suffers from a disorder. I get incredibly triggered by getting crap advice about positive thinking.
If you don’t know what to say, let that be your answer: “I hear you, but I don’t know what to say”. Don’t dismiss their problems or feelings, confirm them. The truth is that a mentally ill person rarely expects someone else to utter those magical words that will make all the bad stuff go away. Usually, they want to be listened to, seen and know that someone out there has caught a glimpse of the darkness inside without running for the door. So dare to take their feelings and problems seriously, dare to verify their experiences. Denying the problems or the condition will not remove them, only the persons faith in you.

5. Be diplomatic and very clear. There are no right or wrongs, but a lot of room for misunderstandings. Keep in mind that mental illness can make people say and do things they don’t mean or things that hurt other without them realizing it, so try not to take everything personally. Choose your battles and try to bring up difficult stuff when you’re alone and calm. Mind your words.
Say:

“I don’t know if you know this/ I’ve told you this before but when you do …. I feel sad/angry/offended because…”

“I think/feel this way… How do you see it?”

“I don’t feel well and I’d rather be left alone for a while”

“It makes me sad/angry/whatever when you do that.. How can we solve this?”

“We don’t agree and that’s fine”

“I think like this… the way you see it is… (Do not say stupid or dumb)”

“I did … because”

“You could improve… and I can work on… (being patient/clear)”

“We don’t agree, how can we compromise?”

Do not say:

“Everything is your fault”

“You are just faking it/making that up”

“I’m right and you’re stupid”

“Stop being such an ass/quit bitching”

“Shut up/ just do what I tell you”

“I’m so sick of you”

“I hate you!”

“You are ruining my life/You’re making everything worse”

“AHHHHH!!”

It’s not too late to sit down and explain you actions after a fight. On the contrary, sitting down and talking when you’ve both cooled down can make all the difference in the world. Try to discuss both what the fight was about and why you reacted the way you did.

6. Be patient. You can help your loved one to recover, but you can’t do the work for them. Getting well takes time, be prepared to take on step forward and two steps back.

7. Ask others for help. It might feel like it’s your duty to help, but you are not alone. Use the mental health care system/authorities/ your loved one’s friends and family. To ask “outsiders” for help is not betraying or gossiping, but it should not be done without your loved one’s consent.
It could be wise to form a “safety net” if the person can be expected to suffer from the condition for a long time. To form a safety net, you choose what people should be included ( preferably the most important people in your loved one’s life + mental health care professional, and/or representatives from their school/family/ circle of friends/workplace/ and so on), than you have a meeting where you discuss your loved one’s diagnose, difficulties, sign of the condition getting worse, in what way each of the attendees can help and what to do should they notice you getting worse. Everyone attending also exchange contact information. These meetings are held every once in a while or when needed.

8. Support them with practical issues. Tag along when they go grocery shopping, cook dinner with them, help them clean or go to the psychologist with them (you can wait outside). Receiving help with practical things can be a huge relief. Depending on what problems you loved one has, it could be hard for them to go outside alone, get things done or they might be too exhausted to even get out of bed.

9. We instinctively want to protect loved ones when they aren’t well and we can get pretty scared of making things worse. This often leads us to withhold information or simply lie (many would argue that it’s a white lie). It could be that we have own problems that we don’t want our loved one to know about, afraid it would make their burden heavier. I understand that we do such things out of consideration and love, and in some cases it is indeed best to keep some things to ourselves until loved one is more stable.  However, personally, I’ve rarely felt as betrayed as when people withhold information because “They don’t want to make me sad”. I’ve honestly felt like, to them, I wasn’t human anymore, but merely a “sick individual”. Furthermore, so what if I should get sad and cry? Is that the end of the world? Do they honestly believe that I wouldn’t recover? To me, “I didn’t want to make you sad” means “I’m scared of getting a guilty conscience”. This is of course my opinion, but I do believe that many have felt the same way. Like I said earlier, keeping some things to yourself for the better sometimes, but I believe that the loved one’s strength is generally underestimated. Keep that in mind next time you decide to not tell them something.

10. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: Don’t forget yourself and your health. To not have the strength/time/opportunity to constantly meet every single of their needs is not letting them down, as long as you are being honest about it. Do not make being there for them your responsibility alone. Let others help you.
Talk to other people, tell them what you are going through and let a friends/family support you. Take care of yourself, give yourself time to rest and have fun. You are just as important as your loved one.

I hope this was helpful and good luck!

Do you have any questions, or something you want to add to this list? Leave a comment! 

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