It can be extremely hard to watch someone you love and care about going through a tough time regarding their mental health. It can also be painful if someone close to you discloses their mental illness or mental health struggles and you had no idea about it. You may feel like a failure yourself, like there’s nothing you can do, like you are useless. Essentially it may start to impact your mental health as well. That’s why the most important thing to remember when supporting someone with mental health issues is that you need to look after yourself as well. You have to.
1. Look after yourself
Sometimes we want to rush in and save the whole world – fix everything – but this simply isn’t possible. Perhaps at first it may seem like a good idea to try and take on the other person’s issues entirely as your own, without giving yourself the space needed to process your own emotions. In fact for a short while this may actually help the other person – but that’s not sustainable; long term it will lead to you burning out, struggling yourself or becoming resentful, likely making the entire situation worse. That’s why it’s so important to look after yourself, even if this is just journaling at the end of the day to help you sort out the feelings of the day, or doing a hobby once a week, the possibilities are limitless and you have to find what works for you. The important thing is that you do find it. And putting in boundaries with the person you are supporting can also help this, and most likely will help them in the long run too.
2. Listen to them
Many people with mental health issues, especially when they are first opening up about them, doubt themselves, feel ashamed or invalidated. By listening to them with an open mind you can help lessen these feelings. And by listening, I mean just that. Not everyone wants (nor even needs) advice or solutions all the time, sometimes they just need to be heard so they feel a little less alone. When having a conversation about their emotions/ experience it can be really helpful to ask the question ‘would you like me to offer advice or just listen to you?’. Validating their experience through listening to them can have a huge impact for someone struggling and give them confidence and reassurance. Remember that they are the one that lives in their brain, and they know what they are going through better than anyone else; it’s not your job to dictate to them what they are undergoing. However, linking to my last point, it is important that you don’t take on all of their feelings for yourself, so placing boundaries can be really helpful – for example requesting that before they talk to you, they ask you if you are in a place to have that conversation.
3. Involve them
Going through a tough time mentally can feel very isolating, and our brains can make us feel very lonely and rejected. That’s why it’s important to continue to involve someone who is struggling mentally. This could mean continuing to invite them to social events while making clear there is no pressure or expectations placed upon them to attend. If they accept and invitation, it might then mean making some accommodations for them, like helping them order food if that’s a point of anxiety for them or giving them some space if they need it for example. It might also mean offering to meet them one on one for a while if that’s easier for them, or talking with them about plans to keep them safe and checking in with them regularly. To relate to my last point, if you’re unsure of what to do, you can always ask them if they have any ideas or if there’s a way you can accommodate them better. This is a huge sign that you care for and accept them still.
4. Research their experience
If the person you are supporting has a diagnosis or has disclosed to you specific symptoms, it can be helpful for your own knowledge to research this. A quick google search will bring up symptoms lists and examples of how these might affect them, but I would also encourage you to look beyond this and read up on the personal experience of different people from different walks of life to get a clearer picture. This can help you understand the person you are supporting better without the worry that you are prying to much, and it can help them to feel seen as this informs how you support them.
5. Make them a happy kit
I’ve made a previous post on this, which you can read here. A happy kit is essentially a little collection of things that can help someone process their emotions, get through a crisis moment, or just generally cheer them up. It can include some things that they find calming or cheering, and maybe a list of distractions and mini coping exercises to try. Distractions are also a really great way to help someone with a mental health issue – it’s not a long term fix but it can help them escape their brain for a minute and feel more ready to face the day. If a distraction is creative it could also be a way of helping them to express themselves, and feel less alone if you’re doing it together.
6. Help with small tasks
Small tasks such as cleaning, ordering food, or remembering deadlines can become seemingly impossible for someone experiencing a mental health struggle. If you feel up to it you can offer to help them with these small tasks, even if that’s just by doing it with them (for example cleaning together one afternoon, or going food shopping together). As always, asking them how best to help is always a good idea, and if they’re not sure offering something specific – such as sending them a reminder text – might appeal to them.
7. Show them you care
It’s simple, but one of the most helpful and meaningful things anyone has ever done for me during my own struggles has been showing me they cared. This could mean writing someone a supportive letter, or making them a playlist. Just something simple that lets them know you care.
7. Be patient
We all have mental health and it can be a long term challenge to face for many. Someone in the midsts of a struggle isn’t going to overcome it overnight, but with amazing people like you willing to support them, they can find their way through. Keep in mind that you need to be patient – one of the reasons why looking after yourself is so important – and that their struggles are not a comment on you, ever. Eventually the sun will come shining through!