How to Help a Relative/Friend with Mental Illness

It can be hard to watch a friend or relative succumb to mental illness. You may feel helpless as they cannot cope with their day-to-day life. It’s important that you don’t blame yourself. Mental illness is 95% genetic components, but that doesn’t exactly mean someone with the genes will develop the disorder/illness.

Helping someone with a mental illness is hard, because ultimately there’s not a lot you can do. You want to heal them and make it all a-okay, but that’s not going to happen. It is a very helpless position. But there are some things that can help and make the recovery easier.

“Don’t give up on them.”

I know it sounds cliche, and it’s the first thing you would think, but it’s important. Especially for those with “ugly” disorders/illnesses. It’s easy to stand by them in the first months, when it’s new and you still feel like the end of the illness is near. But as you slowly realise it’s going to be a long road, you begin to ease up on calling, you stop going around as much, you forget to ask them if they want to come…you start giving up on them. It’s not going to be an easy journey, but try to remember that if it’s this hard for you, it’s a million times harder for the person actually struggling with the disorder. So even if you’re tired of being told “I don’t want to go out today sorry”, keep asking, keep reminding the person that you are there when they do want to go out. Dont. Give. Up. On. Them.

“Help out where and when you can.”

It’s the simple things – the little things that help ease the anxiety, lift a little bit of the depression. I have a friend that will ask for things at restaurants for me, they will ask any inquiries I have – this eases so much of my anxiety when going out in public. It gives me one less thing to worry about. One less thing to focus on. If your friend has been in a depressive state and hasn’t gotten around to doing their dishes for a couple of days, go around and do the dishes, empty the bins. Do the things they haven’t been able to do and let them not have to worry. I know sometimes depression messes can be embarassing and along with feeling depressed, there is now this “oh my god look at the state I’ve let my bedroom/kitchen/lounge/etc get into!” Helping to clean up means they won’t feel so horribly embarrassed. It also allows them to feel “clean” (I don’t know about you but a messy room makes me feel messy, yet the depression just doesn’t care). Do little things that may seem minute, because while they may feel like nothing to you they can mean a lot to someone who is mentally ill.

“Help is there for them”

Let them know that help is out there and they can seek it. Many districts in NZ have community based mental health care for those that cannot afford to go privately. Some people believe that they aren’t “sick” enough or “bad” enough to warrant using facilities or resources available to them. It’s important you help them to understand that they deserve the help just as much as the next person. The team appointed to them will help to give them the best treatment options – whether that is one on one therapy, group therapy, or even just touching base every so often. People can find these processes very daunting and they are allowed to bring along a support person, if they ask you to come, please do. It may seem like a nuisance on your day-to-day life (taking time out of work, getting childcare sorted etc) but it is such an important, and huge, step for them to be seeking help.

“Don’t relate their disorder to ‘a really hard time’ in your life”

It’s hard enough to feel like you’re making it all up, but when someone equates your depression to this one time when they were sad, it hurts. You think “oh boy I really am making it all up!” Or even worse, they feel alone. Before you made a statement they may have felt alone, but at least you were there to listen. But when you make a statement minimizing their struggle, your name is added to a file labelled “never talk to about mental illness again”. Mental illness is bigger than just a hard time in life, more than just one time you dieted etc. Please do not minimise their struggle by trying to relate. If you have the diagnosed mental health issue then don’t be afraid to use your journey as a foundation – do not assume the two journey’s will be the same. Mental health issues are serious and often life threatening. It’s important that they aren’t treated as just a bad day.

“It’s not your job to cure them”

It’s so important that you are aware of your own limits. Never feel like you are obligated to fix their world. Explain why you can’t be there for them at that time, for that scenario, eg. trauma based talking can be harmful to someone struggling with PTSD and therefore they may stay away from that portion of their friends/loved ones disorder. There is a reason that resources exist, it is so that the friends and families are not dealing with the pressure of curing the disorder/illness. Help in the ways you can, as much as you can. But remember that it’s not your job to cure them.

Dealing with mental health issues and illnesses takes it’s toll on everyone involved, but especially the one diagnosed. While it’s a good idea to help, make sure you aren’t putting them in a position they aren’t comfortable with – some people may not want friends to help or talk about it, and that’s okay. Talk to your friend/loved one about what you can do to help and LISTEN to them. There’s nothing worse than asking and then doing your own thing anyway.


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