It’s hard to live with mental illness. It’s also hard to love someone who’s living with mental illness. It’s painful to watch someone we care about so deeply suffer so much, and at times, it can start to feel helpless.
You might be wondering: “What can I do to support my loved one through this? What are the do’s and don’ts when it comes to supporting someone with a mental health diagnosis?”
We’ve got you covered. Read on for five things you can do to effectively support someone with a mental health diagnosis (the last one may surprise you!).
Don’t Be Judgmental
Here is the only “don’t” on our list: don’t be judgmental. Mental health disorders are almost always invisible illnesses, and there is already so much stigma attached to them. Society often treats people with mental illness like they’re “crazy” or dangerous -- or just brush their problems off altogether as “attention-seeking”. The last thing your loved one needs from you is any kind of judgmental attitude.
It’s an honor that your loved one chose you to share this part of their life with. When you get the news, don’t be judgmental, critical, or nonchalant. This person has just shared with you that they are living with a serious health disorder, so treat it as such. Some things you shouldn’t say are:
- “But you don’t seem like you have a mental illness!”
- “Are you sure you aren’t just imagining it?”
- “Oh, you’ll be okay.”
Help Them Get Support
One of the most important things you can do for your loved one is to help them get connected to professional mental health services, if they’re not connected already. As critical as your support will be during this time, it still can’t replace the support of a licensed mental health provider. And mental illness, just like physical illness, rarely goes away on its own.
You can find a Therapist near your location here.
Your loved one needs a qualified therapist or psychiatrist to help them recover from their diagnosis. If they’re feeling too overwhelmed to start looking for a therapist themselves, you can support them by being by their side through this process. Places where people often start looking are on their insurance provider’s network list or on 211.org if the person is uninsured.
Listen More than You Talk
The third way you can support someone with a mental health diagnosis is to listen. It might be tempting to try to show empathy by relating their diagnosis to something that you yourself have gone through. As well-intentioned as this is, it sometimes makes it feel like you aren’t truly listening to your loved one.
Practice active listening skills. Some non-verbal communication that you’re listening might be helpful -- things like nodding, or saying “uh-huh.” Let your loved one communicate everything they want to tell you before you start speaking. When it is your time to talk, keep the conversation focused on them and what they’re going through, not on what you’ve gone through.
If you’ve lived with mental illness before, then it may be appropriate to share this with your loved one so they feel less alone. However, you should still listen to your loved one share their story more than you share your own.
Learn About Their Diagnosis
Not all mental health diagnoses are created equal. What is your loved one suffering with? It may help to get educated on their specific diagnosis so that you can understand them in a deeper way. This is especially important because so many mental health diagnoses are misunderstood.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for example, is often misunderstood as being neat, orderly, and controlling. People often make the mistake of thinking bipolar disorder is just being moody. And mental illness as a whole is also categorically misunderstood. People often think of mental illnesses as not being “real” diseases.
Your loved one probably receives this type of misunderstanding from many people in their life. It will go a long way to learn about their specific disorder and what you can do to support them. There is so much free information available these days, but make sure you’re reading a reliable source.
And don’t be afraid to ask your loved one some questions about their experience. If done in a non-judgmental way, this can communicate empathy and interest. Here’s some language you can borrow: “I care about you, and I want to understand what you’re going through. I read something online about your diagnosis. Would it be okay if I asked you some questions to be able to understand more deeply?”
Finally, it’s critical for you to practice self-care. You can’t pour from an empty cup, as they say, and focusing all of your energy on caring for your loved one is a surefire way to burn out. Signs of burnout or compassion fatigue are feeling hopeless, helpless, or apathetic -- like there’s nothing you can do to make things better, and you just don’t care anymore.
Burning out won’t help you or your loved one, so practice self-care to avoid it. Self-care looks different for everyone. Some people may like to take a hot bath at the end of a long day, and others may choose to seek out mental health therapy for themselves. There is no shame in wanting to get therapy for yourself as you support your loved one through this.
A Final Word
As we said in the beginning: living with a mental illness is hard, but it’s also hard to love someone who’s experiencing mental illness. Making sure that you’re getting what you need is one of the best things you can do to make sure you’re strong and healthy enough to support your loved one through this.
On top of that, don’t be judgmental, learn about your loved one’s condition, and help them get professional mental health support. Most mental health disorders are treatable, and with your support, your loved one can get through this.