If you’re among those who’ve struggled with a mental illness – be it depression, anxiety, panic attacks or any other condition – you know what it’s like to need support and not feel like you’re receiving it.
Although you are surrounded by many friends and relatives who are more than willing to help, you never feel like you receive what you truly need. It almost feels like no one understands what you are going through.
Maybe you feel angry and upset because they don’t seem to care about your emotional needs. Perhaps your anger and frustration drove them out of your life.
That’s what people with a mental illness often go through!
Around the globe, there are hundreds of millions of people dealing with a mental illness. Hundreds of millions of people who suffer and are in need of emotional support.
And the worst part is that, aside from the emotional pain and suffering caused by their condition, they must live in a world that doesn’t understand what they’re going through and often fails to provide the emotional aid they need.
Sometimes, the people who reach out to help end up doing more harm than good. And it’s not because they’re ill-intentioned or careless; many of them don’t know how to provide help.
That’s why the first step in reaching out (and helping) a friend or family member with a mental illness is learning how to provide the ‘right’ kind of support.
Here are five things you should avoid when reaching out to someone with a mental illness.
#1 OFFERING ADVICE OR SOLUTIONS
When hearing about a persons’ suffering, your first instinct might be to offer advice or solutions to the problems they’re facing.
Since our mind is naturally inclined to solve problems, we often tend to ignore the emotional aspects and jump straight to ‘fixes’ that we believe will help the other person regain control over their life.
But how can someone who hasn’t even accepted his/her mental illness be willing to take your advice?
The first step in any recovery process is accepting the problem. They need to get to that point where they realize there is a way out. They need to understand that mental illness doesn’t go away on its own.
Alternative: Encourage them to talk about their problems and take the time to understand what they’re going through.
#2 OVERLOOKING THE EMOTIONAL ASPECT OF THE PROBLEM
As I mentioned before, we often tend to ignore the emotional side of mental illness and jump straight into giving advice.
The unpleasant emotions – sadness, guilt, shame, contempt – that people who struggle with mental illness often experience represent the source of their pain and suffering.
In fact, emotional suffering is what holds them back from taking the necessary steps to regain control over their life.
Alternative: Be empathetic! Put yourself in their position and try to imagine what your life would look like if you had to deal with mental illness.
#3 MINIMIZING THE SEVERITY OF THE CONDITION
When it comes to mental illness, several misconceptions contribute to the lack of social support for people who are struggling with emotional and behavioral problems.
Here are the misconceptions some of us might hold about mental illness:
- Mental illness is something people should be able to overcome on their own.
- Only those who are weak or lazy struggle with mental illness.
- Psychotherapy is for people with more money than problems.
- People with mental illness should ‘just get over it’.
- Mental illness is a temporary problem that will eventually go away.
Sadly, all these misconceptions that today’s society continues to perpetuate can minimize the severity of the condition. As a result, people with mental illness end up feeling hopeless and lost in a world that doesn’t care about their difficulties.
Alternative: Mental illness can be just as severe and debilitating as physical illness.
#4 SHAMING AND BLAMING THE SUFFERER
Shaming and blaming the sufferer is one of those mistakes we often make without even realizing.
When someone with a mental illness talks about their painful, we tend to highlight the crucial moments when they should have acted differently.
For example, when someone is dealing with depression because of a bad breakup and we keep reminding the person why his/her ex. was the wrong choice. Or when a friend is having trouble managing his/her social anxiety, and we keep saying that it’s ridiculous to feel anxious when they go out.
Emphasizing past mistakes or criticizing current actions (that we believe are wrong), will only make the sufferer feel ashamed and guilty for not being strong enough to overcome his/her condition.
Alternative: Help him/her understand that mental illness is the result of various internal and external factors.
#5 BECOMING THEIR SAFETY NET
People who have mental illness can sometimes encounter difficulties with even the simplest tasks. For example, a person’s social anxiety might be so severe that he/she can’t even go out and shop for groceries.
Depending on the severity of the condition, people with a mental illness may require both emotional and financial support. For instance, a person with major depressive disorder might lose his/her job and risk ending up on the streets.
At times like this, we usually pitch in to help our friend or family member overcome their crisis. Whether it’s by paying their bills or making sure they have enough food, we try to assist them in any way we can, hoping they will eventually get back on their feet.
But while providing emotional, social, and financial support is crucial for their recovery, we must also encourage them to seek professional help. Otherwise, we risk becoming the safety net that keeps them from regaining control over their life.
Alternative: Encourage them to consult a mental health professional.
To Sum Up …
Reaching out to a friend with a mental illness is never easy. On many occasions, we fail to provide proper support not because we don’t want to but because we don’t know how.
If you have a friend, coworker, or family member who struggles with a mental illness, remember the following:
- Instead of giving advice, try to lend an empathetic ear. Solutions are useful, but only when the people you’re trying to help are ready to accept them.
- Instead of telling them what they should and shouldn’t do, try to resonate with them on an emotional level. Put yourself in their shoes? Ask them to help you understand what they’re going through.
- Instead of saying “It’s nothing, you’ll get over it.” try to say, “No matter what you’re going through and how bad you feel, I’m here for you.”
- Instead of reminding them of past mistakes, try to broaden your perspective and include all the internal and external factors that led to their problem. Shaming and blaming the sufferer will only make things worse.
- Instead of doing everything in their place, try to stress the importance of consulting a mental health professional. Becoming their safety net can be useful for a short period but will also generate feelings of helplessness and hopelessness if they continue to avoid seeing a therapist.
So, what do you think about our advice on how to help someone with a mental illness? Do you have any friends or family members who struggle with mental illness? Have you ever tried to assist them in any way?
Share your story by leaving a comment below!
Clinical Psychologist, Licensed CBT Therapist.
I’m a Clinical Psychologist and a licensed Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy practitioner. My work focuses mainly on strategies designed to manage and prevent the most common mental issues – anxiety, depression, and stress.
When I’m not busy with my therapeutic practice or other work-related activities, I enjoy going out for a jog or hit the nearby gym.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via LinkedIn (link below), or through the Contact Us page.