10 Things You Can Do To Show Support for Someone with Mental Illness

It’s time for another 10 Things post. I was originally going to do 10 More Things about the Georgia Aquarium because I took a behind the scenes tour and that place is a nerd paradise. Then I thought I might go festive instead and write a 10 Things about Christmas. However, all those plans changed at the last minute.

This morning I got a phone call from my best friend. Someone very close to her, whom she loved dearly, lost a battle against depression. Out of respect for those closest to the person, I will withhold further details. My friend is grieving and in shock. And like most people who lose someone who has been battling mental illness, she knew on a logical level that it was not her fault and there was nothing more she could have done, but on an emotional level, she was struggling.

It was not her fault.

She did everything she could to support her loved one.

I spoke with her throughout the day because she’s my friend and she needs support now too. But as I sat down to write this post, I couldn’t help but think about the many people who fear this situation more than any other because they have a loved one living with mental illness.

This is not the first time someone I know has lost a battle with mental illness. I wish it were. Unfortunately, this is too common an outcome because our society still puts a stigma on mental illness which discourages some people from seeking the help they need or sticking to a treatment plan.

I’m no expert. By any stretch of the imagination. So when it occurred to me that this month–since it is one of the hardest months of the year for people with depression–might be a good month to talk about how to support your loved ones with mental illness, I had to do some research. I turned to Psychology Today, The National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Psych Central who all offer tips for anyone who is trying to show love and support to someone with a mental illness.

If any of this information is incomplete or outdated, I apologize. And if this post is something you think you might need to read through, please also do more research on your own. I will repeat: I’m no expert. Please seek more knowledgeable resources. In the meantime, hopefully, this can get the ball rolling in the right direction.

In tribute to those who are suffering because of their own battle with mental illness and to all those who have to stand on the sidelines as they witness their loved ones battle.

10 Things You Can Do to Show Support for Someone with Mental Illness:

  1. Research. Ask questions, read articles and books. Devour the information available so that you know how the illness works. Do not let misconceptions make the illness just a “personality quirk”.
  2. Have Reasonable Expectations. If your loved one has a few good days in a row, that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t mean they’re cured. You need to know that and so do they. They should still try not to exceed their limits.
  3. Get Help for Yourself. Every resource I consulted strongly advocated that family members and loved ones of the person with mental illness seek outside support for themselves. A therapist, a support group, etc. You need someone to talk to.
  4. Encourage Them to be Honest with their Treatment Team. Is this medication not working? Does it have some side effects that they’re not comfortable with? The doctor needs to know. They are not disturbing the doctor by being honest, they are reasserting control over their bodies and their lives. Encourage them to do so.
  5. Know Where to Draw the Line. You have to set limits. No matter how much you love someone, if they put you or your mental health in danger, it isn’t helping either of you. Set limits.
  6. Treat Them with Respect. Do not talk down to someone with a mental illness. Speak at an age and maturity appropriate level. Living with mental illness does not lower their IQ.
  7. Be a Good Listener. Ask how they are doing and wait for the answer. Engage in the conversation. Show them you genuinely care. Don’t just hear their words, listen to what they are saying. And this should be a discourse, not a debate.
  8. Pick an Appropriate Setting. If you are going to talk to someone about their mental illness, do it in a place or at a time where they won’t feel ambushed or put on display. They need to be comfortable and willing to share, not called out in front of friends or family.
  9. Don’t Guess. If you don’t know how you can help, ask. Even if you think you already know what is best, ask. It isn’t your life, it’s theirs. They have control. Unless they are in a position where you know they can or will do self-harm. That changes everything.
  10. Remain Calm. If you are speaking to a loved one about their mental illness, it will not help them for you to get heated or melodramatic. I’m not saying you can’t have feelings on the matter, but this isn’t about you. It’s about them and how to best support them.

This isn’t a complete list. Please seek other sources.

Above all, know this: Even if you do everything you are supposed to do, sometimes they lose the battle. It isn’t your fault. It’s not their fault. They were fighting an internal battle and lost. You couldn’t fight it for them, no matter how much you wanted to slay their dragons. And if you lose someone to this battle, it’s okay to seek help for yourself, too.

I sincerely hope that I didn’t mislead anyone with bad advice and again, I strongly suggest seeking other sources, but I wanted to take the opportunity to start a conversation. To serve as a reminder.