Taking care of someone with a mental illness can be daunting, scary, exhausting or all three. Most of the difficulties that arise with it come because we don’t have a good understanding of mental illness or we don’t feel equipped to handle it. There are many kinds of mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, psychosis and personality disorders, among many others.
Caring for someone with a mental illness can take many forms, such as providing physical or emotional support, helping them seek help or cope with their illness, encouraging them to engage in activities they no longer feel interested in and keeping them safe. It can vary from helping a friend through a break up to helping them manage their suicidal thoughts.
The best way to help will always be encouraging them to seek professional help or supporting them to continue seeking help, which could mean continuing their medications or going to therapy.
However, on a personal level, there are a couple of other things you can do to help someone:
1. Inform yourself
Research their illness, talk to their GP/therapist or any other professionals involved. Get as much information about their illness as you can. Pay attention to their behaviour.
Most of all ask your friend what THEY need. Mental illness has different ways of making home in different people. Having their input will encourage them to think proactively and for you to know the ways you can help.
Listening is a skill. Listening to someone means paying attention to what they are saying, trying to understand what it would be like to be in a situation like that, empathising, validating what they are saying, not judging and making them feel accepted.
This could mean validating a friend that they are not ‘over-reacting’ or ‘under-reacting’, and assuring them that it’s okay for them to feel the way they do.
Mental illnesses can take different forms. They may experience sudden shifts in mood from sad to angry to irritable. They might experience confusion, difficulty focusing, headaches, body pain or extreme fatigue. Be patient and understand that they might not be as you need them to be. They aren’t just lazy, weak or unmotivated. They are definitely not being difficult on purpose!
The way you perceive things might be very different to the way your friend perceives a situation due to their low mood or altered thinking patterns caused by their illness.
Something might seem easy to you but it might not be easy for them. Let them know that it is okay for them to do things at their own pace.
A depressed friend might not be able to go out as much, so let them know that this is okay and their presence is valued.
They might fear that people will stop inviting them to hang out if they do not go, which in turn might make them feel pressured to go even if they don’t want to. It might go the other way and less frequent invitations might make them feel more isolated.
4. Offer to help out with daily tasks
Mental illness could make everyday tasks really overwhelming for your friend. You might be making sure that they know you are there to help if they need it, but sometimes they just might not know what they need help with. Ask specific questions like “What can I help you with today?” or “Do you want to go grocery shopping with me today?”, or “Do you want me to pick up things from the store for you?”
They might be neglecting their self-care by being in bed all day, not taking a shower for days or not eating properly. Pay attention to it and encourage them to engage in self-care, even if just by asking them to go out for a walk with you.
5. Don’t blame or patronize
You might mean well but unknowingly say some things that can make them feel that it’s their fault to be in that situation.
Don’t use statements like:
‘Snap out of it’
‘How hard it can be?’
‘Why are you making a big deal about such a small thing?’
‘Don’t you see how lucky you are?’
‘Everyone goes through tough times’
‘Try to look on the bright side’
‘This is all in your head’
These things might help someone who is just ‘stressed out’, but it trivializes what those suffering from mental illnesses are experiencing.
Note that it is also important for you to take care of yourself. It is okay to take breaks, know your limitations and practice self-care in the ways that it helps you. You don’t need to be hard on yourself or feel guilty if you think you aren’t able to help as much as you think. You don’t have to try to fix them. Mostly, all they need is the support of someone who truly cares to listen, understand and be patient with them.
If there’s an emergency, contact 999. For less urgent situations, please contact 111 or a GP. Confidential listening support is also provided by the Samaritans on 116 123 and Southampton Nightline on 02380595236.