9 Simple Ways to Help a Mental Illness Sufferer

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Pamela Gold on following through when offering help to a loved one suffering with mental illness...

How often have you asked the question, “How are you?” and cringed when having to suffer through a detailed answer? Most presume a simple “fine” or “okay” in reply to keep the day in motion. It has become an inquiry in passing one doesn’t expect a legitimate answer to.

“Let me know if you need anything!” is as mechanical as the above. Most people put it out there because they don’t expect to be taken up on the offer. Would you follow through?

Most people find it difficult to ask for help in any aspect of their lives. It feels like a burden and has become the equivalent of admitting to defeat. We’ve all experienced highs and lows. Having a friend by our side to simply listen can sometimes be remedy enough.

An individual suffering with mental illness experiences everyday obstacles in addition to symptoms such as depression, intrusive thoughts, hopelessness or possible suicidal tendencies. You cannot tell someone with a mental illness, “Hey, let me know if you need anything!” if you’re going to disappear.

The message is simple: Do not offer your help if you do not intend to follow through.

A good friend of mine reminds me each day that mental illness is not a casserole illness. People don’t stop in their tracks for others suffering with an invisible illness such as depression, to bring them a lasagna. It’s beyond time to change that.

The following is a (nontechnical) list of what I would personally expect someone to do with or for me to get through a difficult struggle. When you’ve offered to help someone with a mental illness, it’s imperative that you don’t necessarily wait for her to come to you. There are signs to keep on your radar in addition to being there should the need arise (whether or not you’re personally contacted).  

The first tip is the most obvious. Keep in touch whether it be a telephone call, text message or email. Start with hello and let your loved one lead the way. If you don’t get a response, call, text or email until you do without badgering, but do let her know you are not going away. Tell her you care for her well being. My advice is that it’s crucial to get your loved one on the phone sooner than later to hear her voice, especially if you’re being ignored. It’s rather difficult to hide how you’re feeling when being forced to speak. Do not give up.

Once you’ve gotten her attention remotely, it’s time to turn that into a visit. I know when I’m in the throes of depression, showering isn’t a priority, so getting out of the house can be an obstacle. However, being alone for the duration of this down time isn’t healthy and human contact, fresh air and visiting with others can have a huge positive impact. Accomplishing this will not be easy. Invite her for coffee, a beer, a glass of wine, a family dinner, a one on one dinner, a walk, shop for comfort items, arrive with takeout and a movie (my personal favorite-eating while watching TV and not having to speak-yet having someone nearby), arrive with a favorite dessert...are you seeing how simple this really is? It’s probably more difficult for you on the follow through end than it is for your loved one. Do not give up.

Listen. Once your loved one opens up (some more willingly than others) you may end up hearing things you’re unprepared for. Intrusive thoughts hover over this person daily whispering lies in her ear. No matter the words that are spoken, the best you can do is listen. She probably won’t want advice but an ear to soak it all in. A place to lift the weight she’s been carrying alone for too long, without judgment. Try not to gasp or make faces if it shocks you. Do not give up.

Everyone has heard the phrase, “Fake it till you make it.” The chances are high that your loved one is faking a lot when being forced into social situations such as work or a family gathering. Much of the time the fakery is actually for you, the audience, more than it is for herself. If you think she’s okay then she’s won for the moment. She doesn’t have to let you in today. Acting okay isn’t all that hard to do. I’ve found a way to discover the honesty behind the acting. Look into her eyes. Eyes can’t lie because they don’t know how. No matter how large a person’s smile, how high pitched the laugh, how funny the joke she tells...her eyes tell a different tale. Look for a blank stare, sunken tiredness, a glazed over I’m here but I’m not really here gaze. Do not give up.

Often times, human affection can go further than speaking. Hug her. This may explode into a full on meltdown. Hold her tighter. Do not give up.

Know the symptoms of your loved one’s illness. Get your facts from a reputable source, such as National Alliance on Mental Illness(NAMI). Once you know the facts, don’t try to act like you know everything about the illness or that you can even relate on any level. You cannot understand what she’s going through and you should honestly stop trying. Her story is different than the one you read online and comparing the two may do more harm than good. Knowing and understanding are two different worlds. For now, stick with knowing. Do not give up.

If your loved one has admitted that her situation has turned into crisis mode, do not take it lightly. She reached out to you because she trusts you. At this stage it’s important to hear her out. You’ve got to get her on the phone or go to her in person. You’d be surprised how out of context a text can be taken. The situation may be more or less serious than initially thought. Don’t just let it go because you’ll never forgive yourself if you do no matter the outcome, and she won’t either. Have the name and contact information on hand for her doctor, which includes the after-hours emergency telephone number. If you’re placed in a situation of crisis and are unsure of what to do, make the call. Do not give up.

When in doubt, call 911 followed by her doctor and get by her side. At this stage, it’s important that you have support also. This isn’t something you can handle alone. Do not give up.

Finally, if you’re ill-equipped to help someone from the start, don’t offer. This isn’t to say that you’re a bad person or helpless. You’re keeping yourself out of the spotlight and standing aside for someone else to do the job. That’s okay. The main thing is not putting yourself on the line if you can’t pull it off. You’re not giving up or passing the buck. This isn’t you giving up.

I’ve been in the situation where I was offered help and that help was either retracted or ignored. I never felt so rejected in my life and not only did my mood plummet further, but I felt betrayed. Feeling alone in a room filled with people is hard enough. Feeling alone when you’re actually alone is life threatening.

Pamela Gold doesn’t claim to be an expert on the topic of mental health, though she retains a strong presence in the mental health community as an advocate. Pamela will bulldoze you with her raw honesty on her blog The Mental Confessional with her own real-life mental illness struggles. She is passionate about writing fictional short stories and poetry. Don’t miss a beat and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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