When someone you know is experiencing symptoms of mental illness, it can be challenging to know the best ways to help. After all, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for making someone feel better and showing that you care, and the level of support needed differs, depending on what kind of mental illness someone is struggling with.
We met with Susan Dempsey, a licensed clinical social worker of First Colonial Psychotherapy Services in Virginia Beach to discuss how parents, friends and caretakers can support loved ones on their journey to battling mental illness. Dempsey has worked in the mental health field for over 20 years in numerous settings including the public school system, a psychiatric hospital, substance abuse rehab and her current residency in private practice. Well-versed in assisting patients experiencing depression, anxiety, addiction, trauma, stress and suicidal thoughts, Dempsey shared with us her most trusted practices for supporting individuals throughout their healing process. She emphasized the significant roles that positivity, trust and compassion play in building rapport with her clients as well as with our loved ones.
Learn the Symptoms
“Educating yourself about mental illness is the foundation of support,” explains Dempsey. Before we can investigate treatment options or even discuss the possibility of a mental illness with a loved one, we must first be aware of their symptoms.
Dempsey stresses that symptoms of mental illness are not concrete. Feelings of guilt, sadness, confusion or frustration manifest in individuals differently and may indicate a multitude of possible diagnoses. “For example, a person with anxiety might lose interest in previously enjoyed activities or might begin to isolate themselves. Someone with depression might have low energy and difficulty concentrating, coupled with irritability,” she says.
A sufferer’s lack of insight often leads to their disregard for mental illness, leaving caretakers to assume the responsibility of accurately noting and identifying the symptoms to ensure proper treatment for the patient.
Let Go of Your Timetable
Dempsey reinforces the notion that mental illness is not a weakness, nor is it something we, as outsiders, can fix. Several mental illnesses vacillate with highs and lows, so establishing expectations or fixed rates of recovery for sufferers can negatively impact their progress. “Treatment isn’t linear, just like life,” Dempsey says. “Commit to providing love and support throughout the duration of treatment. Choosing to love someone when they feel unlovable is vital to their healing.”
Avoid Assumptions and Exclusive Language
Negating our loved one’s experience is one of the most harmful things we can do for their mental state. Dempsey advises us to ask direct questions about their feelings and behaviors rather than quietly appraising their conditions. Engaging in a question-and-answer style rhetoric gives sufferers a sense of empowerment and ownership of their feelings, as well as offers insight and awareness.
Letting your loved one know they are not alone is also crucial to their wellbeing. Using inclusive language like ‘we,’ ‘our’ or ‘both’ makes the individual feel supported and understood. “Providing healthy support allows our loved ones to share their pain and have access to the healthy expression of their emotions. Once the discussion begins, don’t walk away. Stay steady and available,” reminds Dempsey.
Take Care of Yourself
Caring for another person can take a toll on our own mental-emotional capabilities. To keep ourselves healthy and stable, Dempsey recommends counseling or joining a local support group for families with mentally ill relatives. “Having an objective, qualified therapist listen to your feelings without upsetting your loved one can offer not only objectivity but clarity, support and solutions,” she says.
Setting limits is another difficult, yet necessary means of caring for yourself and your loved one. If a loved one refuses treatment, ceases medication or continues to make harmful choices, Dempsey reminds us that it is OK to set boundaries to avoid enabling poor behavior. She does, however, warn us to be wary of being too rigid or punitive as it may alienate our loved ones or escalate a crisis.
Know When to Seek Emergency Help
Should a crisis evolve, Dempsey encourages us to seek immediate help. “When in doubt, call 911,” says Dempsey. “If your loved one is in acute distress, suicidal or psychotic, getting them to the hospital is imperative.”
She reiterates that no one expects you to handle caretaking, let alone an emergency situation, on your own.
Read more about Depression: Stopping the Stigma and Starting the Conversation and Mental Health in Teens.