Nearly one out of every five Americans suffers from mental illness. The current statistics mean roughly 42.5 million adults suffer. Yet, mental illness is still surrounded by a negative stigma, which prevents or even discourages people from seeking help and getting the treatment they need.
For those who don’t suffer from these illnesses, it might seem like it’s something you don’t need to worry about because it doesn’t affect you — but that couldn’t stem further from the truth. Those with mental illnesses need allies to be there for them, and also who can advocate for them when they can’t necessarily do so themselves. What can you do to be a better ally to those with mental illness?
Educate Yourself and Others
The biggest problem individuals with mental illness often face isn’t the illness itself — it’s the lack of knowledge. People are inherently afraid of that which they don’t understand, which can make them unsure of how to approach people with mental illnesses.
The first step you should take is to educate yourself and those around you about the different types of mental illnesses. Learn everything you can. It helps to cut through that fear of the unknown and allows you to be an active ally for those who need your help.
Where can you find resources to educate yourself?
· Online — There are many forums and websites online designed specifically to educate both those suffering from mental illness and those around them. Start out with legitimate sources (NIHM, DBSA, etc) before diving into things like public forums and discussions.
· In Books — Textbooks can be a great resource, but often hard to understand without the aid of an instructor. Look for self-help style books specifically designed to teach you about how to help a person with a mental health diagnosis.
· In Person — Even if you’re not suffering from a mental illness, make an appointment with a therapist to have your questions answered. That kind of first-hand information can be invaluable.
Take the time to learn about mental illness in general and the specific kinds of mental illnesses that affect your friends or loved ones.
Be a Shoulder
This sounds a little odd, but hear us out. One of the best things you can do for your friends or family members with mental illness is to be a shoulder — a shoulder to cry on, a shoulder to lean on when they’re having trouble, or an ear to listen when they’re having problems.
The key here is support. Living with a mental health disorder is difficult even on the best of days, and sometimes you need someone to hold you up when you can’t hold yourself up. Don’t be controlling or demeaning. Just be there when they need help.
Keep Your Expectations in Check
Mental illness isn’t a physical illness — it may present physical symptoms, but unlike things like cancer or diabetes, you can’t see the illness itself. Someone with mental illness might have really good days where they don’t feel or act sick at all. They may go for weeks or months without symptoms, and then suddenly have their symptoms resurge. The treatment of mental illness isn’t an exact science, and it’s important to maintain realistic expectations.
Don’t assume that a few good weeks mean they’ve been cured. Mental illness is a lifelong battle for most people, and they will still need you to be their ally if their symptoms recur or their treatment suddenly becomes ineffective.
Take Care of Yourself, Too
Being an ally for those with mental illness is a fantastic thing but not if it is at the cost of your own physical or mental health. Be there to support and advocate for your friends or family members, but remember to set your own boundaries so you can take the time to care for yourself. Being an ally can be a full-time job in and of itself in some cases, so you want to make sure you’re practicing proper self-care and mindfulness. If you’re not helping yourself, you won’t be healthy enough to do good for anyone else either.
If you have a friend or family member who is suffering from a mental illness, just being supportive is often the best thing you can do for them. Consider talking to a mental health professional about how you can keep an eye out for those who struggle, and how you can be a better friend to them.