How to Comfort Someone with Mental Illness: A Guide for Friends and Loved Ones

When a friend or loved one is struggling with mental illness, it can be difficult to know how to help. Even if you don't fully understand what they are going through, there are ways to support them in a healthy and supportive way. The most important thing is to listen without judgement and make sure they know they are not alone. It's also important to let your loved one lead the conversation so that you can talk about topics that they feel comfortable discussing.

Follow and support instead of leading and advising, as this will help your loved one feel heard and understood. It's natural to want to relate to what your loved one is going through, but it's important to remember that everyone's experience is different. For example, linking your own panic attacks to your anxiety about regular spending implies that those two things are the same or have similar consequences, which minimizes your loved one's pain. Similarly, suggesting that they can do what you did when you were anxious is stigmatizing and not helpful. One of the most widespread misconceptions about mental health is that yoga, meditation, and other wellness trends can cure depression and other mental health conditions. While these practices are undoubtedly a useful complement to treatment for many people, only your friend knows if they are right for them.

Instead of suggesting these activities, ask what options they see for themselves. If the person says they feel like they don't have options, you can ask their permission to share some ideas that you've heard that might make sense to them. It's also important to be mindful of the language you use when talking about mental health. While it's OK to show concern for a friend, comments like “you just need to snap out of it” or “just think positive” may seem accusatory. If the person says that they feel like they have no options, you could say “I always hear about therapy and medications, what do you think about that?” Remember that this is a decision that is ultimately up to them to make. For those who have mental health problems, much of what has been discussed will be familiar to them.

You've probably heard some of the advice above, well-intentioned but useless, and felt hurt by its implications. Rather than responding in anger when someone makes a hurtful comment, it's best to remind yourself that that person doesn't know enough to allow that to be the source of your pain. Be sure to let the advocates around you step in to educate those who need it, or do it yourself if that seems right and healthy for you. Much of the anxiety that comes with diagnosing a disorder such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder is due to the anxiety that this now means that you are disabled. Everyone likes to feel that they contribute to society, and depressed people who don't feel well enough to work can become even more depressed as they feel a burden to others and believe that “everyone would be better off without them”.

Everyone wants to be treated like a normal person, even if they know they don't look like one. This quote from Winston Churchill inspires people: “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts”. The words “to the end” are an encouraging statement for people with mental problems. Moving on will also subtly let your friend know that you care and want them there. Try to help them create a support network with other friends, family, and mental health professionals who can also help them. The blurred judgment that accompanies mental health problems can blind those who suffer from them to the brighter times ahead.

Avoid asking questions like “when will you get better?” as this can make your loved one feel pressured to get better right away, which is rarely the case in the case of mental health. People with mental health problems sometimes experience a crisis such as having suicidal tendencies or experiencing their own or a different reality. Mental health problems and their causes are complex, and many people become emotionally exhausted looking for the causes of their suffering. Exercising, eating a healthy diet, and getting a good night's sleep can help protect mental health and maintain well-being. While certain symptoms are common with specific mental health problems, no two people behave the same way when they're not well. Seeing, hearing or believing things that no one else does can be a symptom of a mental health problem. When someone close to you has a mental illness it can be difficult knowing how best to support them.

However, by listening without judgement and following instead of leading or advising you can help your loved one feel accepted and appreciated while dealing with mental health issues. Sometimes it will seem obvious when someone is going through a difficult time but there's no easy way to tell if they have a mental health problem. If you're concerned about someone close to you it's best to encourage them seek professional help from their GP or community mental health team (CMHT).

Nikki Swancutt
Nikki Swancutt

Lifelong beer practitioner. Friendly social media advocate. Proud twitter fanatic. Unapologetic pop culture lover. Wannabe communicator.

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