If someone close to you is suffering from a mental illness, you don’t need anyone to tell you that others suffer as well. It is hard to see their pain and the impact it has on others, even unknowingly. And it is easy to feel powerless to help.
A simple definition of mental illness is any condition that causes significant challenges in a person’s thoughts, emotions, behavior, relationships or work. A mental illness almost always makes life difficult for the person who has it in some way.
Many people feel helpless or overwhelmed when someone they love has a mental illness, which can include major depression, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, personality disorders or schizophrenia. They want to help but don’t feel qualified to help. In some cases, the person with the illness doesn’t even want help because their illness causes them to think that way.
But there are a few things you can do to help them to have the best possible life and outcome.
Everyone needs supportive and accepting relationships – that is how humans survive and grow. Yet when someone has a mental illness, we sometimes hold back for fear of triggering a response or upsetting them. This concern can lead to being “present but not present” with them, avoiding vulnerable or substantive conversations in favor of talking about the weather.
While such caution might be the right approach in some serious and urgent situations, a person with mental illness wants and needs people to understand them, listen to them, ask questions that show interest and help them know they are not emotionally alone. Just as you would do with a friend who has a broken leg, diabetes or cancer, talk to them about their life and share yours.
Help them to get help
Nowadays, there are very effective treatments for mental illness. Remember that some mental illnesses are curable, such as depression, panic attacks and personality disorders. And though some illnesses can’t be cured, such as schizophrenia, they can be managed well so that the individual’s symptoms and quality of life are much improved.
One type of treatment is talk counseling, or psychotherapy. The right approach used by the right therapist can go a long way toward improving an individual’s quality of life. Another therapy is medication, or psychopharmaceuticals. Medication can target the person’s symptoms with as few side effects as possible. However, a person with mental illness will often resist either talk therapy or medications because of fear, shame, side effects, culture or because they can’t make sound decisions.
In every way possible, try to help these individuals find help. Don’t think your love and support will fix them. Just as you wouldn’t assume a person with a gall bladder issue can be cured by love and support alone, stay on affected friends and family to get professional help. My book Handling Difficult People has strategies to help when a person with mental illness simply will not cooperate for their own benefit.
Numerous resources can help you learn how to support a loved one with mental illness. For example, the National Association on Mental Illness has a wealth of information and support groups with whom you can connect. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Use the wisdom and help that so many millions have experienced.
I also am launching a digital role-play platform, which will show you how to have healthier conversations with a person who is mentally ill. Check out Townsend NOW for more information.
Individuals with mental illness can have a much better present and future. Your wise and informed ways of relating to them can make a positive difference.