Mental Health: How to Provide Love and Support
Mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder impact millions of families across the US. Watching a loved one struggle with the symptoms of mental illness can be scary and emotionally exhausting. It can also be difficult to know what to do to help.
Recognize the signs
Recognizing the symptoms of mental illness is a critical first step in helping someone get the support they need. While mental illness can look different for everyone, here are some common signs that a loved one might be struggling.
- Isolating from friends and family
- Significant changes to sleeping or eating patterns
- Problems with memory or focus
- Extreme mood swings
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Difficulty functioning at work or school
Be proactive about offering support
We often see articles and social media posts encouraging people suffering from mental illness to reach out to friends, mental health professionals, or crisis hotlines. While these messages are well-intentioned, the reality is that people suffering from mental illness often are unwilling or even unable to reach out for help.
If you suspect a loved one is struggling with their mental health, do not wait for them to make the first move. Approach them about your concerns in a gentle, non-threatening way. You can begin with something as simple as, “I’ve noticed you seem sad lately. I’d like to help if I can.” or “You don’t seem quite like yourself, and I’m worried.”
You can also look for small ways to ease their stress. If your partner is often responsible for making dinner, give them a night off from cooking. If a loved one hasn’t been taking care of their personal hygiene, run them a relaxing bath or do a load of laundry so they have fresh clothes available. If your child is suddenly exhibiting anxiety about going to school, consider letting them take a “mental health day” while you figure out what is upsetting them. Showing your support through actions as well as words can help reinforce to your loved one that you are there for them.
Listen without judgment and validate their feelings
If a loved one is struggling with mental illness, it’s critical to create an environment in which they feel safe to open up about it. This means listening actively and empathetically. It also means validating their feelings and not expressing judgment, even if we disagree with what they’re feeling. Statements like “It could be worse” or “Look on the bright side” are not helpful! Instead, make sure to use language that acknowledges what they’re going through and ensures them that you love and support them. Statements like “It must be very scary to feel this way” or “I’m so sorry you’re hurting. I’ll help you find a way to feel better” can help your loved one feel safe and encourage them to communicate with you.
Don’t take it personally
Mental illness is challenging, and it doesn’t bring out the best in us. People struggling with mental illness often exhibit irritability and even angry outbursts. If you are constantly on the receiving end of these reactions, it can be very easy to take them personally.
It’s natural to feel hurt when someone, particularly someone we love, lashes out at us. But it’s very important to remember that your loved one’s mental illness is not about you. You need to find a way to acknowledge your loved one’s symptoms without taking them as a personal attack. This might mean talking to a therapist or reaching out to a support group for family members of people with mental illness. By getting support for yourself as well, you’ll be better able to keep your perspective and help both your loved one and your relationship come out stronger.
Help your loved one get treatment
For someone in the throes of a mental health crisis, navigating the medical system, identifying the right treatment options, and setting up appointments can be daunting. So again, be proactive! Encourage your loved one to talk to a professional, and share your own positive experiences with therapy or medication if you have them. Call your insurance provider for a list of therapists in your network and find out who is taking new patients. Drive your loved one to their appointments – and maybe have their favorite coffee or ice cream waiting for them afterward! Or, see if the therapist offers virtual sessions. By taking away some of the logistical burden, you’ll make it easier for your loved one to focus solely on their health.
A great place to start looking for treatment options is your EAP. Remember, your EAP benefits don’t just apply to you – they also cover partners and dependents.
If a loved one has been diagnosed with a mental illness, arming yourself with knowledge is one of the best ways to help. Read up on the root causes, symptoms, and treatment options for their specific illness. If it is appropriate and they are willing, attend a few therapy sessions with them to learn how you can better support them. When you know more about the realities of your loved one’s illness, you’ll be a more understanding and effective advocate!
Don’t lose hope
Mental illnesses are scary and challenging, but they are treatable. It may take time to find the right treatment options, but with patience and compassion, you can help your loved one find the help they need.
Perhaps most importantly of all, remember that your loved one is the same person you have always known and loved. While their mental illness may occasionally change their behavior, it does not change who they are at their core, nor does it define their entire lives. Strive to see and celebrate your loved one for who they are beyond their illness, and remind them that you still see that person as well.
WORKPLACE SOLUTIONS is a group of dedicated professionals who provide assistance and resources to individuals and families to create a satisfying and meaningful life. We’re counselors, attorneys, financial professionals, and experienced specialists in a wide variety of fields. Because life’s challenges and opportunities show up in a range of different areas, we provide assistance in a number of different ways.