Discovering that someone you love is struggling with a mental health condition can be surprising and, quite frankly, unnerving. You might be at a loss for words to share with your loved one or feel clueless as to what action you can take to alleviate their pain and discomfort. You may have never been in this type of situation before, so navigating this feels intimidating. You want to help, but don’t know how. This moment when you find out that your relative or dear friend is suffering is extremely important and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This discovery can be a pivotal event, because now your loved one has the chance to be supported by you.
An insight I can share, from my experience of caring for a loved one dealing with anxiety and depression is less perfection and more action. As humans, and especially as friends and family members, we want to do the right thing, not only on a moral level, but on a math and science level too. We hope that if we follow the correct steps, then our efforts will yield results and the problem will be solved. For example, antidepressant + doctor’s appointment + favorite food = happiness again. However, when it comes to matters of mental health, clear-cut solutions are rare and quick fixes are definitely unrealistic. Yes, the basis to getting better can derive from an informed plan, but in that first moment of realizing that your loved one is hurting, a plan isn’t the element that’s going to make your sister or your brother feel like they’re not alone. It’s your presence that will make a significant difference. The first actions to take are to tell them that you are there for them, that you will not leave them, and that it will get better.
It could be OCD, addiction, severe anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, or an eating disorder. Whatever it is, your loved one probably feels some extent of shame for what they are going through. This isn’t because mental illnesses are wrong or even uncommon. Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S (46 million) experiences mental illness in a given year, and 21.4 % of youth aged 13-18 experiences a severe mental disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This shame they feel stems from our collective history, where in most cultures, mental health conditions have always been stigmatized.
Lexico defines ‘stigma’ as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Stigma can do serious damage. Imagine being a young kid, too scared to open up about your obsessive thoughts or compulsions, because you might be called crazy. Put yourself in the shoes of a teenager dealing with depression, too embarrassed to talk about struggling because doing so makes them feel like a failure. Hiding a mental health condition is an everyday practice for so many people of various backgrounds and ethnicities. People from all walks of life have been misinformed to view mental illness as a personal weakness. Yet if you consider that mental health problems are often linked to genetics, trauma, chemical imbalances, and allergic reactions to substances, you can change this misconception and the stereotypes and understand that your loved ones state of mind is a result of multiple factors, many of which are out of their control.
Whether your loved one came to you and vocalized their battle or you approached them, letting them know that you are all ears to listen to what they are going through, gives them the chance to leave isolation behind. Telling them that they can confide in you, even if they aren’t ready or able to yet, sets up an opportunity for healing. The process of learning to cope with a mental health condition and even recovery starts with baby steps. Your willingness and availability to listen can break that wall, which is often put up because of shame. So in that moment of being there for your loved one and expressing your presence, the second essential action to make is to communicate how knowing of their struggle is a really good thing, because now you can be there for them.
When my loved one had trouble getting out of bed every day due to her depression, I didn’t know that she didn’t get out of bed because she physically couldn’t. When I offered to cuddle next to her, rub her back, and bring her food and a glass of water, only then did she open up to me that the mornings were the worst, and that her body would become immobilized the longer she slept in. I realized then that even the smallest gestures of care and love helped make a difference. Being there in the moment with her and empathizing with her emotions led to trust, which in turn led to insight.
Sometimes feeling another’s pain can become too much. This is especially true if we do not learn how to be there for someone while practicing self-care. I’ve found that when caring for another person, it is equally important to care for oneself. Being there for another person becomes less overwhelming if you find a routine and balance. Be there for your loved ones, and be there for yourself. Notice that you need alone time and social time, and take that time to decompress and invigorate yourself with motivation and positivity. You’ve got your loved ones back, there’s no doubt about it. Your concern is a part of the deal. Nevertheless, you can’t be a good support if you forget to tend to your needs.
My final advice is to recognize that you cannot do all the hard work for your loved one. They must journey into self-care and wellness by their own will. Remind them of their personal strength. By realizing how far they have come thus far, they may face their adversity with a stronger sense of spirit.
There are a few tips I have for moving forward :
Research on your loved ones symptoms, mental health condition, and diagnosis
Attend a community group for people supporting loved ones with mental illness
Avoid black and white thinking
Validate your loved ones feelings
Vocalize your support
Consider options for medical support
Discover positive, uplifting affirmations or motivational stories
Know that waves pass, and there are ups and downs—look forward to the ups, prepare for the downs
Practice self-care, laugh when you can, and embrace humor
Balance alone time and social time
Encourage your loved one to get fresh air and to get some exercise, but never force them to
Identify your loved ones support network (doctors, therapists, friends, family, groups)
Notice improvement and express joy in progress
Embrace light-hearted moments
Remember, struggling does not mean you will always struggle and feelings are momentary
Count your blessings
When something good happens, applaud it
When something not-so-good happens, have faith it will pass
Understand that restoring health is a process
Never underestimate the power of love