Supporting a Loved One Through Mental Illness
It is likely you have been on either or both sides of this conversation. Most of us have found ourselves either receiving care from a loved one during a season of mental illness, or providing care for someone we love who is struggling through their own hard season. Both positions are important ones.
Working up the courage to be vulnerable and to confide in a loved one about an internal battle you’ve been facing is difficult and demonstrates true bravery. Often being on the receiving end of this type of vulnerability, has us digging deep in pursuit of an answer to the question: “How do I let this person know they are loved, heard, and supported?” These moments have the power to push someone away – leaving them feeling further isolated – or they have the power to help someone feel connected, hopeful, and heard.
Your main job is to be present, listen, and validate.
In my experience talking with people, we are consistently underestimating the significance of simply being present with someone. The impulse is natural: we want to fix things; we want to say the perfect words. In reality, one of the most meaningful gifts we can offer someone is our full attention. Sit with them. Put down your phone. Look away from the TV. Stop thinking about your to-do list. Be fully in the moment with your loved one. This makes a world of difference.
Listen deeply with genuine care and hope to understand better what your loved one is attempting to express. It can be very difficult to decipher through one’s emotions and then attempt to put them into words. By reflecting back on what you are hearing, it can help the person sharing find the words to express what is going on inside.
Validation is telling someone that what he/she is feeling is okay; the emotions make sense, are valid, and are real. Validation dismantles the defenses – when someone is heard, he or she no longer feels the impulse to prove.
Hold onto the hope when they can’t.
Be hopeful for them. You may need to hold the hope for that person in that moment if they cannot hold it for themselves. Tell them you believe things will get better. Tell them that help is available. Tell them that things pass and that you fully believe in their ability to do hard things.
Offer specific help, if appropriate.
Offer to pick up your friend’s kid from school. Offer to handle a meeting for a colleague. Offer to bring dinner to your friend and their family. Offer to be a sounding board for a tough conversation your sister needs to have. Offer to take your cousin out for coffee to talk further about what she is going through. Offer to watch your friend’s kids so he can go to therapy.
Sometimes offering to complete a simple task makes an impact much larger than what we can see. A simple gesture can provide the time and breathing room for your loved one to focus on self-care or just take a deep breathe without the added pressure of life’s daily demands.
Recognize that everyone is different.
Often people may not know what they need, but it is still worth asking and helping them to figure it out. Some friends may respond better to direct advice than others. Some will need their space and some will need you close by. Spend time getting to know your loved ones well enough that you have a good pulse for what sort of support would be most helpful to them. Have grace with yourself while you walk this hard road alongside them. Be open to the fact that you might not always have the right words to say, or offer the “right” sort of support. That’s okay. Apologize, and try again.
What matters most is that you are in the thick of it with them. Act with humility knowing that it is not about you, but about caring for your loved one in a time of struggle and need.
You got this! Keep on supporting each other.
Brittany Gilchrist, MA, LPC, CEDS is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas and is a Certified Eating Disorders Specialist (CEDS) through the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals. Brittany’s specialties include working with individuals who are struggling with eating disorders, body image, anxiety, depression, perfectionism, social/relational issues, life transitions, and identity development. For more information or to contact Brittany, please visit www.peaceandpurposecounseling.com.