So, you’ve stepped up to help someone in your life who is struggling with a mental health challenge. On behalf of everyone needing that help, thank you! Now, what might you expect? Sometimes, conveying “I’ve got you” means something as simple as offering encouragement during a rough patch. Sometimes, it means you’re getting the ball rolling on a difficult journey.
If you’re on that journey with someone, it may seem like the light at the end of the tunnel keeps moving further down the road. Fortunately, there are strategies that may help keep things moving forward. From my own and others’ experience, here are tactics that have proven helpful.
My personal motto comes from Winston Churchill: “Never give in. Never, never, never, never.” This certainly applies to the process of helping someone who is ill get better. Typically, helping someone who needs mental health intervention is a process, not an event, and along the way, the path to mental wellness can feel very unclear and more like one step forward and two steps back. But persisting at every step and using the following strategies can help make the process less frustrating and more successful.
- Find and use the right words for the person you’re helping.
Whether you’re encouraging someone who clearly needs help to get it or reminding them to use the techniques and/or medications that have been recommended or prescribed, good listening can be a key.
It’s common to have our own reasons we want someone to get help – i.e., we want them to have more success in school or at work or we think they’ll be “happier.” But if we listen carefully, people who are struggling will often tell us what is meaningful to him/her. It may sound like “I’m bored,” which often means lonely. We can respond to that by reminding him/her that when they felt better, they hung out with friends more. Someone may say repeatedly, “I hate my job,” and we can say, “That must feel awful. I wonder if talking to a therapist could help you make a change.”
When someone is seriously mentally ill and experiencing thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that scare him/her, we can say, “There is help out there to stop those scary thoughts,” or “When you take your medication regularly, you don’t see that man who seems to be following you.”
Listen for what is meaningful and refer to that when suggesting help. Use their motivator, not yours.
- Plant seeds even when you think you’re not being heard.
Just because a person doesn’t act the first or second or third time you suggest getting professional help, it doesn’t mean they won’t. You’re planting seeds with your reminders and suggestions. When the person feels they’re ready, your words will be there for support.
- Keep sending messages of care and support.
Reach out regularly to the person who concerns you with simple messages that show you care and that do not include advice. Often, it just feels good to be acknowledged and cared about to the person who is struggling. Even if you don’t get a response, knowing there is support out there is much appreciated.
5. Do your best to take nothing personally. Remember, your loved one is ill. He/she may say or do things that are hurtful to you. They may say their struggle is your fault or hurl insults that are shocking and painful. But once they are well, they may not even remember these episodes. These actions are the product of a sick brain telling lies. It is very important to do your best to keep that at the front of your mind and remain calm when you’re receiving these messages. Don’t argue or try to impose reason. DO set boundaries and say you will not talk unless the person is calm and respectful.
6. Back off.
If you think someone you’re trying to help is pulling away, consider backing off. He/she may need some time to process what is happening alone. They may need time to develop clarity or lucidity to gain self-awareness about their struggles, and you cannot force that. If you only talk about or send messages that advise taking action, the person is going to feel like a failure or avoid you if they aren’t ready to follow through. Maintaining a trusting relationship, though difficult at times, is the goal. This might mean easing off and talking about other things or even letting some time pass before contacting him/her again. Unless you are afraid the person is suicidal, respect the person’s self-agency and be available.
7. Find an ally.
It is very hard to provide help to someone who needs it by yourself. Usually, you need at least one other person who will talk to you and work with you. These may be other family members, friends, therapists/psychiatrists you are allowed to talk to, group therapy leaders, teachers, roommates, etc. If you are struggling with your communication or don’t feel like you have a good sense of what is really going on, enlist these people to share their observations and opportunities to speak up. Call everyone and call again until you find that person!
8. Consult a therapist yourself who is familiar with the challenges facing your loved one.
You will benefit from the expertise of someone who understands what your loved one is going through from both sides – his/hers and yours. A good therapist, counselor, psychologist can offer an understanding of disorders, their trajectory, and how best to help. In addition, you can get support for your own feelings on this journey.
9. Take Care of yourself.
It’s true. You can’t help others if you are depleted yourself. There is nothing selfish about self-care, so make yourself a priority as best you. Think of the things you can do to replenish yourself. Remember, this is likely a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ll need to be fueled.