How To Help Someone Who Has Mental Illness


How do you help someone who has mental illness?

Does your friend or family member suffer from mental illness, and you’re looking for a way to help them?
Sometimes we need to find a way to do that. But how do we? And another important question is — how do we do it without smothering them?

One of the first things that comes to my mind when this topic was brought up to me was that often people with mental illness either:

  • Don’t always want help.
  • Want help, but are stubborn about accepting it – and especially seeking it.
  • Don’t accept that they have a mental illness in the first place.

Obviously these things can cause major issues for someone who is trying to help the person who is suffering!

 So what can do we to help?

First of all, become informed.

If you haven’t already, you should research and learn about the condition(s) that the person has in detail.

  • Get as much professional information as you can.
  • Read some personal experiences, such as blog and forum posts from people who suffer with the same one(s), etc.
  • You can even discuss the subject anonymously with people who are also suffering (e.g. on Twitter; I suggest Mental Health Advocates, but go with your “gut”) and ask questions.

It will mean a lot to the person that you’ve done that.

But even when you have, please don’t think that you know everything or that you can actually relate to the person — because without actually experiencing it yourself, it’s really impossible to. We truly appreciate you trying to understand; but that is all you can do since you can’t actually get inside of our heads, and the illness can also vary from person to person.

Mental health in general is a lot more complicated than it may seem, even after you’ve researched it. In fact, even professionals and science don’t fully understand it; but don’t let this prevent you from learning as much as possible. In addition to taking a step towards helping your family member or friend out, you’ll always be helping to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by learning facts about it, which you can also tell others about. Go, you!

Don’t add to the stigma. Reduce it.

As I just mentioned reducing the stigma, and also stated that some people are stubborn about seeking helping — I wanted to point out that some of that is actually due to mental health stigma. Unfortunately the way that many people perceive us for having a mental health problem and receiving treatment for it — is absolutely unfair and uncalled for.

People are very ignorant on this subject and it needs to change.

Receiving treatment for a mental health problem should be no different than seeking treatment for a physical health problem, period.
So it would be nice if you would understand and believe that. Then you can assure the one you care about that you believe it, and that they should too.

Let them know you accept them.

Make sure that the person knows they are still the same person they were before you knew they had a mental illness, before they are!

And let them know that you accept them for who they are. This is very important. We need to be treated as equals.

Ask what helps instead of assuming.

Assuming what will help a person can lead to smothering them. This is why you should ask what helps them, but only while they are open to discuss the topic. Don’t mention it every day; a lot of us don’t want to be constantly reminded more than we have to be that we have a mental illness — although that is quite unavoidable at times as it is due to the symptoms we experience, and medications we may be taking.

Also, be honest with them if their requests are doable or not. Don’t put too much strain on yourself.

But let the person know you’re there if they need anything reasonable.

Consider counseling for yourself.

This mostly applies if you’re supporting a family member. There’s definitely a burden that comes with helping out somebody who has a chronic illness, no matter what type. It can add stress, depression, anxiety and other negative emotions to your life.

You deserve an aware for being there for the person, regardless of how much they show appreciation for your support; and most likely, they do – or will – appreciate it.

Talking to someone about how you feel and letting your frustrations out with someone other than the suffering person should greatly improve your ability to help the person. In addition, you may learn more techniques than I mention here. I highly recommend it, if you have can manage to afford it.

Offer to go to support groups to families and friends.

Showing that you’re serious about helping them, and willing to spend the time and effort to go with them to get help should have a big impact. But don’t pressure them to do it; some of us may be uncomfortable doing so, which you should expect — so don’t be surprised if you are rejected.

If they do agree to go, that’s absolutely fantastic! But based on my experience, I personally feel that is more of a display of how much you care.

 What if the person doesn’t want help?

Sometimes they do, but won’t admit it.

This is a difficult situation. I’ve personally been guilty of this. I push people away when I need help the most. People say “I’m fine“, when really they aren’t at all.

We can be stubborn. Sometimes we think that we don’t deserve help, or anything at all. We can feel absolutely hopeless.

I don’t mean to worry you, but at some point, you may even need to look out for self-harm and suicidal thought symptoms. This is a whole different topic, which I should probably follow up on.

One of the best things to do is probably to say something such as “I’m not sure that I believe that you’re fine — so if you want to talk to me about it, I’m here to listen. Please let me know before things get out of hand; I care a lot about you (and I love you).”

Maybe they really don’t…

I’m not sure that I’ve encountered this, to be honest. Maybe someone feels that they want to be independent and tackle it by themselves.

Or maybe they are not ready to receive help yet.

If this is the case, then maybe discussing why they feel the need to do that is so important to them would be a good start. Then mention that you know they’re going through such a difficult time, and you would really appreciate if they would let you help at least a little bit wherever possible – however (in)significant it may be.

Perhaps over time, if they accept any help from you, they’ll start to see that it’s easier and gradually accept more of it.

However, if they really insist on being left alone for a while, then let them be alone and bring it up another time.

 How about if the person doesn’t believe he/she has a mental illness?

Discuss it. Don’t argue!

Ask why they believe they don’t have a mental health problem. You can use your knowledge that you’ve acquired to have some idea of what’s going on, but don’t attempt to sound like a professional and assure them that they do — and definitely don’t attempt to (re)diagnose them yourself.

If after your hopefully calm discussion, you both are questioning it, then perhaps you should try to convince them to get a second or even third professional opinion — because hey, although it’s rare, maybe they actually don’t have a mental illness after all. They may be willing to do that to prove you “wrong.” But it may be confirmed, and then you are doing them a favor by having them take another step in the right direction. If this upsets them afterwards, don’t take it personally.

It will take time, regardless of what you do.

When a person is newly diagnosed, this is the most difficult time of the acceptance process. They need time to learn about the mental illness for themselves too! You can politely suggest that they also research it for their own benefit; and maybe when they see all of the things that are in common with what they experience, they’ll come to their own conclusion they do indeed have it and need to accept it. For me, finding out as much as I could was extremely beneficial — but I did this by my own will. Again, don’t be pushy.

 More you can do to help

Be patient.

Everything is going to take time.

For the mentally ill: acceptance takes time, as does opening up, getting and receiving the proper treatment that helps at an acceptable level.

For both of you: dealing with this change, and being able to be there for one another is a monumental challenge. But you can do it.

Work together.

You need cooperation. Don’t try to do everything alone, or feel like you need to be a hero. Don’t try to “fix” the person.

Let there be a natural flow of communication and friendship. People with mental illness often feel lonely, even if they’re not alone; and we often need reassurance that someone’s there, that things will be okay — but don’t overdo it, especially if the person is venting to you.

Listen to the person.

If the person is venting to you, listen to them. Don’t give advice. Don’t tell them they’re wrong or correct them. Just listen. At the end, maybe ask them if they want a hug (if that’s appropriate.)

Don’t make the person feel guilty, or ashamed.

Never make the person feel bad or selfish for their feelings or actions caused by their mental illness. This includes their suicidal thoughts.

The same goes with making them feel ashamed.

We should never have to feel this way. It’s not our fault.

A few other things:

  • Show them hope and encouragement
  • Don’t talk down to us as if we are less intelligent
  • Talk to us in a comfortable environment
  • Try not to be defensive, if you can help it (within reason)
  • Don’t tell us to “pray” and that will somehow fix us
  • Don’t say that changing or attitude or outlook on life will change everything
  • Don’t say everyone feels that way sometimes
  • Talk a casual pace, not too fast
  • Don’t be hostile
  • Never make jokes about the condition

I hope that helps someone. Let me know what you think in the comments below. If you have any suggestions, please let me know and I’ll gladly add them!

This post was based on suggestions from Twitter for Mental Health Awareness Week. More will come soon!

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