Do’s and don’ts when supporting a loved one with mental illness


By Natalie Khoo

Do’s and don’ts when supporting a loved one with mental illness

As Malaysia continues to grapple with the escalating Covid-19 cases, the aftershocks are giving rise to another invisible crisis: deteriorating mental health. Despite the implementation of MCO 3.0 in efforts to flatten the curve, it’s getting harder to look for a silver lining beyond the dark clouds of sickness, deaths and uncertainty, especially amidst the social distancing and isolation.

In 2020, the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) recorded more than a two-fold increase in people seeking help related to stress compared to 2019. Another study by University Malaya involving 1,163 respondents showed an increase in prevalence of depressive, anxiety and stress symptoms in Malaysia over the course of the pandemic last year.

Considering the statistics, it’s likely that all of us know of at least one or more friend or family member who’s struggling with their mental health. Unfortunately, some may not realise that they are mentally ill, or worse, live in denial of the fact. For the unacquainted, here are some common symptoms to watch out for, according to Kenny Lim of Befrienders KL:

  • loss of interest, even in things that were previously pleasurable
  • loss of focus (affecting performance at work and studies)
  • mood swings
  • changes to sleeping patterns
  • changes to eating behaviour

If someone displaying these symptoms comes to you for help, it can be difficult to find the right words to say. However, simply showing up for them can make a difference. In case you need guidance on how to support a loved one with mental illness, try following these do’s and don’ts.

✓ Do: Listen and show empathy

The simplest thing you can do is to lend them your ears. Let them know that you’re willing and available to listen to their problems, even if you can’t relate or understand the situation fully. Gently ask questions and give them time and space to share what they’re going through, but only if they’re comfortable. When they do, affirm their emotions and show them that you see and hear their struggles.


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✗ Don’t: Resort to toxic positivity

Despite your good intentions, stay away from toxic positivity. Refrain from saying things like “cheer up”, “look at the bright side” or “you’ll be fine” as it minimises their problems. Bear in mind that what may seem like a small issue to you can be a huge burden to a person suffering from mental illnesses, due to their hormonal imbalances and heightened sensitivity. Even someone who has a successful career, loads of friends and a joyful personality may be facing mental health struggles from hidden trauma or abuse, so never assume that one has it all fine and dandy or better than others.

✓ Do: Assure them of their worth

Mental disorders can diminish one’s sense of self-worth and confidence, making them feel inadequate or useless. When a loved one is going through an anxious or depressive phase, remind them of what they mean to you and that you love and care for them. Encourage them for being brave enough to be vulnerable and help them regain their sense of control and confidence.

✗ Don’t: Blame or shame


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A post shared by Sara Kuburic (@millennial.therapist)

It may be tempting to jump in with a solution to their problems, but don’t give advice they didn’t ask for. This may make them feel weak or at fault, which only worsens their guilt and shame. Some may resort to using alcohol or substances to cope with their condition, in which case, don’t add salt to the wound by saying things like “you’re making things worse” or “go fix yourself”. Instead, express your concern by using “I” statements such as “I’m worried about this…” then offer to look for resources and support.

✓ Do: Encourage them to seek help


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