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

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

Helping you help others

Text: Natalie Khoo

Image: The Shepard Trust via WBUR

It can be difficult to find the right words to say to someone who’s struggling with their mental health. However, simply showing up for them can make a difference—here’s how

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.

✗ 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

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

Speaking of resources, try to equip yourself with practical information such as helplines and institutions that provide mental health services. Share these resources with your struggling loved one and encourage them to seek professional help. This is especially critical if someone has suicidal thoughts. If they are active on social media, there are also Instagram accounts that destigmatise their condition while providing tips on how to cope. Reading these posts can help them feel less lonely in their struggles and empower them to see a specialist.

✗ Don’t: Make decisions without their consent

Just like seeing a doctor or going to the dentist for some, it can be very daunting for a struggling person to visit a mental health specialist. Even so, avoid making medical decisions on their behalf. This can overwhelm them and trigger or worsen their trauma. You can offer to book an appointment and accompany them to the clinic to help lighten the burden and apprehension, but don’t pressure them into anything. Be *very* patient and simply assure them that you will be there throughout the process.

✓ Do: Set your boundaries

It is okay to be honest and upfront about how you can be of support to your struggling loved one. Everyone has different boundaries and commitments, so be sure of yours and let that person know. For example, you can set aside time after work or putting the kids to bed to hear that person out or check up on them every weekend to see how they’re coping. Be realistic, as overpromising can lead to disappointment and build resentment. Encourage them to build a support network or connect them with a support group so that they have an alternative to turn to when you are not available.

✗ Don’t: Take things personally

The truth is, journeying with someone who’s struggling with mental illness can be very exhausting, frustrating and stressful. In some cases, they may lash out at you or push you away. Feelings of grief, anger, despair and hopelessness are common and valid, but don’t lose yourself in the process. Remember that it is not your fault and that there’s only so much you can do. Don’t blame yourself or take their actions and words personally as mental disorders can cause uncontrollable outbursts and irrational behaviour. Understand that as much as you shower them with your love, they may not be able to reciprocate the same.

✓ Do: Practise self-care

Given the gravity of all of the above, cut yourself some slack and be intentional about self-care. Pour into your own cup as much as—if not more than—you pour into a loved one’s to avoid burnout. Stick to your boundaries and if you need to, take a step back to rest and recharge. Before you do so, be transparent with them and ensure that they have the necessary support or crisis contacts in your absence. When you’re ready, check back in again. Finally, allow yourself to lean on your own loved ones and support network throughout the process.

Remember that you deserve to be happy and healthy even when you’re supporting someone who isn’t.

For more on mental health, click here.

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