Posted in Peer Support, psychology, Supporting Friends/Family, Voices

How To Support A Loved One’s Mental Health Journey

Chances are, if your loved one is struggling, you’re overwhelmed, they’re overwhelmed, and you all just want time to stop so you can breathe.

Unfortunately, we experience time in a linear fashion because of our physicality. Sorry.

What we can do is learn, adapt, and have a meaningful existence.

So, let’s start with something simple:

Tip #1: Offer an ear

The easiest thing to do, which can also become one of the hardest things to stay consistent with and have patience for, is be an ear for your loved one.

Understand you are not their therapist, you are not their treatment center and you are not their savior. What you are is a confidant, a safe person. You don’t have to solve any problems and if your loved one is asking you to, kindly remind them that solutions aren’t always the answer: sometimes you just need to ride the waves, feel the pain, and learn to adapt. They will know this instinctually, but sometimes the pain is so great that we just want relief. That’s why gentle reminders, patience, and compassionate words are the best a friend or parent or partner or sibling can do.

Depressive phrases like “I just want to die” can be startling and sometimes your first instinct is to ask “are you safe?”. Refrain from that. For the love of God, refrain from that.

A lot of the times in my suicidal ideation I needed to vent and get the heavy burden off my shoulders. I needed someone to hear me. I didn’t need someone to panic and make me doubt I had any control over myself.

If your loved one talks about suicide often, concern is valid. Fear is valid. But not everyone benefits from multiple 3 day hospitalizations just because they’re thinking about killing themselves.

Instead sit with them. If they have a mental health team, maybe connect with them. Ask what you can do to help. You’ll probably get a response of “nothing” or “I don’t know, I just don’t want to be here anymore”. And that’s okay. You can’t control their actions or their thoughts and sometimes space for the seriousness and the authenticity of the pain helps release the tension.

Remember yourself in this too. Your loved one is in pain and you don’t like that. You want to help. You want to pull them out. But you can’t do everything, and that’s killing you. Sometimes you get so angry you want to pull your hair out. Sometimes you just want to give up. And so do they. They don’t want to feel like a burden to everyone around them and a way to show them that they aren’t is to make sure you take care of your own mental wellbeing. Show them you will be okay.

Their feelings are not your responsibility. That doesn’t make you selfish or careless. It makes you an individual mind.

So, in short: offer an ear, really hear them, and restrain your panic. Keep firm boundaries—your friend can’t be calling every ten seconds for you to rescue them, they need to find their own footing and be less dependent. You can foster this with healthy support, a compassionate ear, and voicing your own struggle if their pain becomes too much to bear.

Tip #2: Stay Educated

This will be important particularly if your child is affected. There is tons of research coming out every day on all these labels we’ve created and a lot of the real research is in stark contradiction to what you find on your average health website or mental health forum. If this is all new to you, I’d suggest checking out my previous post, How to Read a Psychological Research Paper, so you know what to look for.

It’s nice to read personal stories of individuals who are also affected; that’s often why we tell our stories is so that people can understand where we’re coming from. If your son bursts in your room and says something like “why the fuck would you say that? Get away from me”, you might start to doubt your coping abilities, you might start feeing like you have to walk on eggshells, and you’ll eventually just blame his mental health.

The problem with just blaming the experience is that you lack the understanding necessary to actually be compassionate. You can learn to not take things personal, you can earn to ignore harsh words and phrases, but all that does is discount the experience. Let me explain.

In personal stories you may read that someone once thought his mother was part of the CIA and transmitting his thoughts back to headquarters, commenting on his movements and locations, and so he’d yell at his mom or break things or do strange things to disrupt her telepathy. In the story you might read about the fear he felt, the terror, how scared he was despite how angry he appeared.

And that’s the key. If you don’t understand that your loved one, in this state, is much more sacred and confused than angry, you’ll be more inclined to yell back or try and present evidence in an attempt to break a delusion.

Not everyone has the luxury of being able to discuss what’s going on with their loved one in this state. But if you do, if there are substantial moments of clarity, especially in altered states like this that aren’t a crisis, it can be transformative for both to explore some of the fear and terror and brainstorm some ways to help your loved one reality check when things get intense.

In order to do that, you’ll need to know some things about altered states. Read some personal stories, read some valid research, and involve your loved one in all of this. Introduce some stories to them, discuss some of the research if that’s possible at the time, and help them know they aren’t alone. Express to them your fears and your confusion. Maybe saying something like “when you do this, I get confused because . . .” And create a dialogue around confusion. For those of us with anxiety and psychosis and even depression it can be very helpful when we know where we stand with someone.

Tip #3: Be Involved

Maybe you can’t do all of this for just a friend all the time. But if you could join them at a support group or help them get to an appointment, that can really be a great tangible way of showing you care. And, again, boundaries are important; if you take your friend to her weekly appointment once, and she keeps asking for a ride every week, find a time to remind her face to face that you have responsibilities of your own. Offer to help her find a bus pass or teach her how to use Uber/Lyft. But ultimately she needs to find her own way for some of the time.

Ask what kind of involvement your loved one would like. I know when my parents came to my therapy appointments, even if it was just my mother sitting outside, I didn’t like it. It was supposed to be my own personal space, my own personal time to get my own personal thoughts out. Unless your loved one is incapable of speaking for themselves, you should give them as much space as they want so they can develop their sense of being again.

Do not take control. Reach compromises with your loved one. Discuss things. Don’t talk about things with your loved one’s doctor without your loved one present. We have a saying in the peer community: Nothing About Us, Without Us. When this isn’t honored, we feel cheated, betrayed, out of control and this can fuel paranoia for those of us dealing with psychosis; suddenly, you’re working for the CIA again and you have no idea why.

If the doctor insists talking about things without his/her actual patient involved, resist and stand up for your loved one, particularly if they aren’t in the room to do so themselves.

This is important because supporting us in empowering ourselves instead of supporting our dependence or helplessness is what becomes eventual motivation for us to find stability. In fact, it’s essential in finding stability.

You might feel that your loved one can’t do anything on their own, and maybe in a crisis that’s true. Helping has its time and place as all things. But you have to understand that a hospital doesn’t foster individualism. It fosters helplessness. And if that attitude is continued outside of the hospital, and after the crisis, there will be little motivation and little belief that things can ever change.

The belief is the key factor here.

My parents were never involved much in my health or my crises. That may have saved me, because they never treated me any different. They assumed me to be well, they assumed me to be able to feed myself and clothe myself and bathe. When I didn’t, when I went into crisis mode and was in a hospital that did all those things for me—reminders at least—and I came home to zero reminders, zero help, after a while I knew that I wasn’t going to get that kind of dependent support. I never suffered with the belief that I was incapable. Even when I wasn’t showering in a depressive episode. I didn’t believe I couldn’t, I didn’t believe it was “just too hard”, I just believed the pain was too great to pay attention to that kind of crap right then.

So, be involved, but don’t suffocate. Reach a compromise with your loved one. This may take some wrangling, and both of you may need some patience. It takes a while to figure this stuff out. A single conversation isn’t going to be enough.

Tip #4: Breathe

The best thing you can do for your loved one is be well.

There’s not much else to say about that.

And this isn’t to be well for them. This isn’t to be well so you can be their caretaker. This is for you to be well for you. This is to promote your own healthy state of mind and live your life with your loved one. It’s possible to have a peaceful existence. It’s just not possible to have it without some hiccups along the way. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It all depends on how you adapt.

A Final Thought:

These tips are built from things I wished people had done with me. Anxiety crippled me as a kid, and into adulthood; depression buried me my teenage years, and psychosis has given me insight to the universe, and not in a delusional sense. It would have been nice having close family or close friends along that entire journey with me.

And so, my parting word is this: walk with your loved one—not in front of them, not behind them, but beside them.

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Writer. Reader. Science advocate. Living well beyond the label Schizoaffective.

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