Written by: Tanya Kowalenko, Health Promoter
One of the questions I’m most often asked when I’m out in the community is a variation of “I have a person in my life who is struggling with (insert mental health issue). What can I do to support them?”
If you’ve ever had a loved one who is struggling with a mental health issue or mental illness, you will know the range and depth of feelings underlying this question. These can include worry, confusion, desperation, anxiety, sadness, guilt, shame, anger, frustration, hopelessness, and fear, among countless other possible emotional responses.
The reality is, when someone you care for is going through a hard time, it can be very painful. I wish I could tell you exactly what to do to take this pain away, but I can’t. There is no one right way to support someone living with a mental health issue and there is no magic fix that will make them, or you, feel better right away.
With that being said, there are some things that can really help, and they’re a lot simpler than you might imagine.
Listen and Be Present
Really being with someone, in whatever state they’re in, without trying to change them or solve their problems, is a gift that is so often undervalued. You don’t need to be their therapist, just be their friend. Turn off your phone, breathe, and give them space to share what’s going on. Listen with an open heart and an open mind.
Be Curious about their Experience
It can be easy to think we know how another person experiences depression, anxiety or grief, especially if we’ve experienced these things ourselves. But when we do this, we don’t really attempt to understand their experience. We all have a longing to be heard, understood, and to be seen and accepted just as we are. Being curious about what it’s like for your loved one shows that you’re really trying to ‘get’ them – to meet them and be with them in their experience.
Take Care of You
When people come up to me asking how they can support someone in their life who is struggling, I usually ask them, “How are you supporting yourself?”
Taking care of your needs, getting support to feel and process your own experience, might seem selfish or of lesser importance to you than helping your loved one. But I’ll tell you, supporting yourself is one of the best ways you can support another. We naturally mirror and emotionally sync-up with other people, so when you’re feeling balanced and grounded, this has a direct impact on others. Just think of your own experiences. When you’re around someone who is anxious, overwhelmed or frantic, how do you feel? What about when you’re around someone who is present, grounded and clear-headed?
You can only support others if you’re also supporting yourself.
Check out our Journeying Together program, which is specifically for caregivers and loved ones of people living with a mental health issue or mental illness.
Check in with them regularly. Even just a text message that says, “I’m thinking about you,” can make the world of difference. You don’t always need to talk about the difficult stuff – hang out with them, do things you both enjoy, just spend time together.
Learn as much as you can about what your loved one is going through and find out what local programs and services are available to help.
Ask your loved one if they’re interested in seeking professional support. Tell them that you’ve done some research and have found some programs and services that might help. If they’re interested, share those with them.
If they don’t want to seek professional support, you can’t force it. All you can do is take care of yourself, do the other things outlined above, and tell them that when they’re ready, you’re willing to help them locate the kind of supports that they’re looking for.
For more information on supporting a loved one and yourself, click on the below brochures. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call Four County Crisis at 705-745-6484 or 1-866-995-9933.