Mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can overtake a person's life. Sadness and generalized, unfounded worry can consume a person, making them feel alone and helpless.
While getting professional treatment and medication are very important, friends and family offer a support system the importance of which cannot be overstated. If you know and love someone who suffers from mental illness, you know how difficult it can be to be.
Here are 15 ways to help in a meaningful way:
1. Be there for them when they need it.
If you tell someone with a mental illness that you will be there for them, be prepared to mean it. That might entail answering calls in the middle of the night, holding their hand, listening to them cry or just sitting together. When a person's biggest fear is being alone, having someone who is really there for them is monumentally important.
2. Go away when they need it.
There will certainly be times when the person you care about doesn't want anyone around. They don't want to talk. They don't want to listen. They don't want anything but privacy. If you are confident they aren't sending you away so they can harm themselves, go ahead and go.
3. Listen without offering unsolicited advice.
Often, a person with a mental illness knows that their fears and worries are irrational. Telling them as much and offering overly-simplistic solutions won't improve anything. Rather, it will make them feel judged and worse about their situation. If they are venting their frustrations, let them do it, and only offer advice when they ask.
4. Be aware of potential triggers and try to avoid them.
Not all triggers can be avoided, and one should strive to deal with anxiety-causing triggers in a healthy way. However, unless you are a trained mental health professional, don't take it upon yourself to try desensitizing them. If there are people or situations they are desperately trying to avoid for fear it might trigger a panic attack or a breakdown, help them avoid them whenever possible.
5. Don't take it personally.
A person with a mental illness can be difficult to be around sometimes. They might lash out at those closest to them, but it's very important not to take it personally. They will undoubtably regret it later, even if they aren't able to express their apologies well.
6. Let them know it's not their fault for feeling a certain way.
Mental illness can be caused by things such as trauma, genetics or a chemical imbalance in the brain. Nobody wants to feel bad or behave badly in a way they can't control. Reassure your loved one that there is a reason they are having these problems, and that you understand — and want them to understand — that it's not their fault.
7. Help them find a healthy outlet for their emotions.
People express their emotions in different ways. Some choose music, others choose art or writing, while others rely on exercise to work through their feelings. Find out what their outlet is and encourage them to do that activity when possible.
8. Ask how to help them in that moment.
Your loved one might need you to listen. Or give them a hug. Or bring a Coke flavored Icee. Or have you sit next to them while they hide under their blanket. They know what they need to feel better in that moment. Just ask.
9. Ask how they are feeling.
The best way to get an honest answer about how someone is feeling is to ask in a way that doesn't lead toward a specific answer. Keep it open-ended and let them arrive at answers themselves. Not only does this help you determine how they're doing, but it could be helpful for them to put feelings into words as well.
10. Offer to go with them if they choose to seek professional help.
Getting help for a mental illness can be daunting, because there is an inherent fear of being judged and stigmatized. If your loved one is avoiding treatment out of fear, offer to hold their hand in the process and seek out help together and remind them that there's no shame in wanting to get better. Just as someone would want to seek treatment for a broken bone or cancer, a mental illness also requires professional treatment.
11. Acknowledge the struggle; don't minimize the pain.
"Everyone gets sad sometimes." "Why are you so worried?" "You need to cheer up." These comments are not only unhelpful, they can actually cause the person more distress. "This must be very hard for you" and "Take all the time you need" are much more helpful."
12. Understand mental illness is a journey and won't improve overnight.
There will be times when a person is getting treatment and seems to be okay for a while, but then something happens that causes a significant setback. This is normal, and you need to be ready. Mental illness isn't like an illness that will clear up after a round of antibiotics; it can be a lifelong struggle. Treatment will make it easier to deal with mental illness and will level things out, but there will be ups and downs along the way.
13. Refrain from enabling damaging behavior.
Some people use drugs, alcohol, self-harm, and other destructive behaviors to deal with the pain of mental illness. They may claim it makes them feel better, and in the short-term, it very well may. However, you'll be helping them in a much larger and more permanent way by refusing to enable behavior that is not in their best interest.
14. Recognize suicidal behaviors and get help when needed.
15. Tell them how much you love them.
Some people with mental illness feel unloved and alone. Assure them that you are there, and you love them. Often times, it isn't easy to love someone with mental illness, but by offering to help in the best way you know how, you can help lift them from the darkness in their minds, even possibly saving their life. They may never be able to repay you for the love and kindness you've given them, but it will be worth it.
[Header image: iStockphoto]