Helping loved ones suffering from mental illness
If you are worried about a loved one struggling with mental health, you are not alone. Every year, as many as 1 in 5 adults will experience mental health related issues (NAMI.org). This can be frightening if you unsure of how to help or provide support for those you care about. It is also not uncommon for your loved-one to be resistant to outside help for their mental health struggles. As a partner, friend, or parent, you may feel powerless to help them. As much as you care and love the person who is struggling, the decision to get help is ultimately up to them. However, there are things that you can do to positively and lovingly encourage them to get what they need:
Starting the conversation:
Mental health can be a sensitive topic for those you care about. Here are some phrases to help you start that conversation with someone you love:
I can see that you are going through a difficult time. I am here for you.
I care about you and your struggles. What would you feel comfortable sharing some of them with me?
I am familiar with some counselors/therapists in the area, can I give you those names?
It can be scary to ask for help, can I help you make an appointment with someone?
I’ve been thinking about you and the struggles you are facing. Can we talk about what is going on? If not, who are comfortable talking to?
Who or what has helped you to deal with similar issues in the past?
Have you experienced this before?
What do you want me to know about what you are feeling right now?
I am concerned for your safety. Have you had thoughts about hurting yourself?
Here are some communication skills to use while talking to someone about their mental health:
Validate, validate, VALIDATE!
Discuss the topic when and where the person feels safe. Try not to ask them in public or when a lot of people are around
Be open and kind, do not judge
Listen and hear what they are saying. Try not to talk too much
When you are met with resistance:
Sometimes, people are resistant to getting help for mental health. This is a normal reaction. There are ways to address loved ones who are initially unwilling to get help:
Remind them that if this was a physical illness, you would take them to the doctor. Mental health operates in the same way. Depression makes you tired in the same way a cold does. Your body is trying to recover from something difficult.
Help them find appropriate mental health referrals. Offer to go with them the first time (ask the therapist or provider if this is OK ).
There is a real possibility that your loved one will be angry with you for trying to get them help. The best way you can respond is to not respond back in anger. Stay calm, take deep breaths, and listen. Tell them they are allowed to be angry and that you are listening. Remind yourself that your own feelings are valid, make sure you take time to blow off steam in other ways after the conversations ends.
Find the person that can get through to them. If you are not this person, find the one that is.
If you cannot get them to a mental health provider, suggest a wellness check-up with a General Doctor. In that appointment, ask for a mental check-up too (most providers do this anyways).
It takes more than one conversation! You may need to have several conversations before anything changes. This is normal and expected. Try to be compassionate and empathetic. Put yourself in their shoes. Listen with an open heart and open mind.
At the end of the day, you are not responsible for their health and their happiness. Make sure you set appropriate boundaries. Do not take on their problems. You can share the burden but not internalize it.
There are times where gentle conversations and prodding is not appropriate. Here is when you need to call 911, a crisis hotline, or take your loved one to the hospital:
They are cutting or self-harming
They have attempted to kill themselves
They are thinking of killing someone
Saying that they are going to kill themselves
They are talking nonsensically, unable to comprehend time and space
Psychotic symptoms and aggressive behaviors
The "Do Nots"
There are certain interactions that I would recommend avoiding when you are helping someone through a mental health struggle. I listed below some of the top ‘do nots’ as well as things to try instead :
Do not say, “ I understand what you are feeling”. The reality is, you cannot truly feel what they are feeling. You can identify what it is like to feel sad or anxious and you can vocalize that, but do not say that you truly understand what they are going through (because you really don’t!).
Try saying this instead: “I don’t know what you are feeling right now. I am just glad you told me” OR “ I can’t really feel what you are feeling, but I remember times where I felt (sad, anxious, scared, etc) and it was overwhelming. I know this must be hard”
Do not tell them to ‘get over it’. Turns out this phrase has never worked, ever!
Do not give them unwanted advice. There have rarely been times where someone’s advice made their loved one ‘better’. If they want advice, ask permission to give it or wait until they ask.
Do not invalidate their feelings. Try not to say things like “you’ll be ok one day” or “try to think happy thoughts”, “try to be positive”, “Try to ignore it”, OR “you don’t really feel that way!”.
Instead say: “I can’t imagine what this is like for you”
Instead say “ You are allowed to feel that way, your feelings are valid”
Instead say “I know that you are hurting. It must be so painful”
Do not take it personally. They have to want the help for themselves. It is not a personal attack on you- it is their problem and theirs alone.
Do not force them to see a professional. Unless they are an immediate risk to themselves, forcing them will likely backfire.
Try not to react in anger
Instead, say this “ I hear what you are saying. I would be angry and frustrated too”
Instead say this “I am feeling overwhelmed and scared too. I want to help you and that is why I am asking”
Instead say this: “ You are so important to me. I know this is hard. I can be there for you and I can be supportive. I do not have the training to help you more than that, but I am still here for you. Right now I feel helpless because I wish I could take this away for you”.
Be kind to yourself if your efforts do not work. Keep having those difficult conversations and check in on those who you are concerned about. It is OK to set boundaries with those who struggle. Boundaries will allow you to continue being there for them and it will keep you out of a place of resentment.
* Please note that information from this blog is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for mental health care.
Kylie Chaffin M.A., LMHC
Challenges in life often leave us feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and lonely. You don't have to do it alone. I provide a safe and supportive environment to discuss your concerns, discover your inner strengths and resources, and develop goals that focus on what matters most to you. I believe that counseling is a collaborative relationship built on trust, authenticity, and compassion. I provide services for a variety of issues, including: depression, anxiety, trauma/PTSD, abuse, stress, and postpartum depression. As a companion on your journey, I will assist you in the utilization and fine-tuning of your innate strengths and abilities. I have a Master's degree in Counseling and I am an EMDRIA approved EMDR therapist.
I am a licensed counselor in the state of Washington and I provide counseling at my office in Spokane