Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Tips on how to identify and help someone who may be struggling with a mental illness.
October has officially been declared mental health awareness month. As a mental health professional a part of me wants to throw a party in celebration- finally this human experience that affects so many of us is getting the recognition it deserves as a serious public health issue!!!
Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.
If we personally have not yet struggled with our mental health at least every one of us will have a close friend, family member, coworker or neighbor who has. For centuries it has been downplayed and stigmatized leaving those struggling alone and scared unable able to reach out for fear of judgment. Thankfully the world and the people in it are changing. Conversations around this topic are growing and with this we are learning and thus more equipped to help where we can.
Having someone you love change in front of your eyes and not understanding why is scary. At 15 you may have had a great relationship with your sister yet suddenly she seems like a withdrawn stranger a year later. She hides in her room as it’s the only place that feels safe. Perhaps your father has been your best friend your whole life, always making time for you and your family until he loses his job and suddenly he is choosing a bottle of booze over his kids, he becomes angry and to protect yourself you pull away.
Anyone at anytime can struggle with their mental health. Some may experience an episode whilst others are contending with a diagnosis throughout their life. Both of these are scary and overwhelming for those experiencing the struggle as well as their loved ones. Here are some quick tips that can help you identify whether someone you love may need some help and what to do when you realize this.
Early warnings signs
Eating or sleeping too much or too little
Sudden change in character
Severe Mood swings
Inability to perform daily tasks
Withdrawing and Isolating
Low or no energy
Feeling numb or like nothing matters
Unexplained aches and pains
Feeling helpless or hopeless
Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual
Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried, or scared
Yelling or fighting with family and friends
Having persistent and obsessive thoughts and memories
Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
Thoughts of harming self or others
Tips on how to help
The most important thing you can do is TALK ABOUT IT. Just as you are confused with the way your loved one is behaving it is very likely that they are also confused. So often families or friends withdraw as they are afraid of engaging in conflict or causing offence. Always remember if your concern is coming from a place of love and care then then you must share it. A simple ‘can I help you’, ‘you don’t seem like yourself’, ‘I’m hear to talk if you need’ can go a long way.
Do not judge or downplay their struggle. So often we hear people say ‘but they have nothing to be depressed about’ or ‘just get over it’. What is very important to acknowledge is that someone who is struggling with their mental health does not necessarily have the same problem solving or self regulations skills available to them as a ‘healthy’ person. What may work for you in your times of stress, sadness or anxiety such as practicing gratitude, exercising or being mindful may not work for them. Try and listen to where they are coming from instead of always offering suggestions.
Do not take it personally if they do not want to talk. Your loved one may not want to talk to you as they are afraid of scaring you with their thoughts or feelings. They may want to protect you from worrying.
Direct them to professional help. We may want to take this on ourselves and do what we can to help those we love but often our emotions can get in the way of making decisions. If it becomes clear that your efforts and support are not working as you would like then an objective support team is crucial.
Do your research. If a loved one receives a diagnosis it can often be difficult to understand. It will be beneficial for you to do your research and even attend support groups for loved ones as any diagnosis can be difficult to navigate within a family.
Avoid conflict. If you can see that conversations are continuously ending in conflict then its time to use another tactic. Perhaps call in a mediator who can help both parties feel heard and discuss a possible game plan. Never communicate when emotionally charged or in the red zone, this can be extremely damaging and alienate the parties involved.
Look after you. You will only be able to help someone you love if you are looking after your own emotional needs. When you are stable, rested and able to maintain boundaries you will become part of the solution. It is easy when situations are emotionally charged to become part of the problem. Do not forget about you.
Until you have experienced someone you love slowly wither away in front of your eyes from an illness that is intangible yet so powerful you may not quite grasp the severity of the experience. Powerlessness can perhaps describe it. The only thing you can do is take the necessary steps to get your loved one and yourself the help that is needed. What may be beneficial for you to remember in times of difficulty are what is referred to as the Three C’s (I did not CAUSE it; I cannot CONTROL it; I cannot CURE it).
Lets keep talking about it!!!