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Supporting Someone with Mental Health Struggles

It can be difficult to support a loved one with mental illness. These tips and strategies from a therapist will help.

There is no one size fits all

Statistically speaking, 20 – 25% of people over 18 have a diagnosable mental illness in any given year, and that’s not taking into account the rampant levels of self-reported anxiety, stress, and depression that have skyrocketed over the past two years. When we consider these numbers, it is incredibly likely that someone you know and care about is struggling with their mental health. You may not know what to do or how to best support them, and you might find that your best efforts fall flat, don’t seem to help, or maybe even make things worse. That can lead to feeling powerless, confused, frustrated, and sad. Fortunately, there are things you can do.

First, it’s important to keep in mind that “mental illness” is a really broad term. Mental illness comes in a variety of flavors and forms. That means that two people with mental illness are likely to be very different, which means they have very different needs. Compare it to this: If your loved one had a health condition, how would you support them? 

Well, it depends.

Do they have severe allergies? Cancer? Diabetes? Chronic pain? The specifics of their condition would heavily influence how you supported them. It’s the same thing with mental health. Find out their diagnosis if they have one and/or get a good understanding of their experiences and the symptoms that get in the way for them. Then seek out treatment options. It can be difficult to find the right kind of treatment or the right provider(s). If you can take on some of that research, you might remove a barrier to getting the needed help.

Things to keep in mind: Tips from a therapist

In the nearly 20 years that I’ve been practicing psychology, I’ve talked with a lot of parents, partners, and friends about their desire to help their loved one. These are some conversations I find myself having frequently.

Be patient: It’s a marathon, not a sprint

While effective treatments exist, many mental illnesses are chronic conditions, so it’s best to think of management rather than cure (like allergies or diabetes). The long-term, day in and day out nature of symptom management can make it hard to be patient and supportive, especially if it looks like your loved one isn’t trying to do what they need to. Keep in mind that it’s human for motivation to wax and wane, so your person may not be fully motivated every single day to use the strategies or interventions that they know work for them.

There’s also a really good chance that they’re working harder than you realize. A lot of the work to manage anxiety or depression, for example, happens on the inside, which you just can’t see. You’ll only see the symptoms that break through. Assume that they are sincerely trying and want to get better. 

Know that it isn’t your fault

You didn’t cause this. Parents, I’m looking at you especially. But, there may be things that you’re doing that inadvertently make it worse. I call this feeding the dog. Going down the “If only” path won’t change anything. You can only focus on moving forward. 

It’s not their fault either

They didn’t ask for anxiety or depression or addiction or neurodivergence or any other label. Remember that when you find yourself feeling angry or frustrated. This was not their choice and not their fault. 

They are not their disorder

There’s a therapeutic technique that I find incredibly helpful called externalization. This means separating the individual from their disorder. Doing so opens the door for you to be on the same team, working to beat the disorder. Think about someone with cancer. We instinctively know that they are not their cancer, that cancer is something that happened to them, and is something that they are working to overcome. Mental illness is no different.

What not to do when your love one has a mental illness

You can’t guilt, shame, or criticize someone out of mental illness. While I understand the desire to pour those on at times (Why can’t you just…? If you truly loved me, then you’d… No one else…). Deep down we think we can get them to choose to be different. These tactics just don’t work that way and, in fact, might actually make things worse. 

Refrain from unhelpful advice

Don’t worry” or “Don’t be sad” are just not helpful things to hear. If it were as simple as Nike’s Just Do It, they would have done it eons ago. 

“You should…” Even if your intentions are positive and your advice is actually helpful, phrasing it as a should often lands as a criticism. Find another way to say it. Better yet, do it with them

Don’t bury your head

Denial also isn’t helpful for either of you. It is generally beneficial to acknowledge reality as it actually is. Minimizing or downplaying or pretending things don’t exist gets in the way of taking effective action. Besides, early intervention is often easier and faster than waiting until things get critically bad.

Do this instead: How to support a loved one with mental illness

In general, try to operate as a compassionate collaborator – someone who accepts them and understands how hard this is, is willing to work together to come up with game plans and offer accountability, and is accepting of them as a whole person.

Learn about their mental illness

Knowledge is power. Once you have an idea of the condition or symptoms that your loved one is experiencing, learn about it! The better understanding you have of the condition or struggles, the better able you’ll be to help.

For example, in my practice, I work mostly with anxiety and OCD. Good Parenting 101 says do whatever you can to make your kid feel healthy, happy, and secure. When it comes to OCD and anxiety, though, that approach completely backfires. When parents provide reassurance that worries will not come true or help the child avoid something they find scary, the child feels better…temporarily. But the worries keep coming back. It’s important to have a solid understanding of how anxiety works to feel confident responding to your child’s worries by saying, “That’s just a worry. Be brave.” 

Similarly, if your partner has ADHD, they may have trouble with time management. If you don’t understand that ADHD is a brain-based condition that affects executive functioning (planning and carrying out tasks), you might get angry and interpret chronic lateness as a sign of disrespect when it’s anything but. 

When it comes to learning about mental illness, the internet can be a wonderful place. It can also be a source of complete junk. Look for reputable sites like these:

www.adaa.org

www.nami.org

www.childmind.org

Go there: Talk about hard things

Ask questions and be curious about their experience. And when they answer, listen. Really listen. With the intent of understanding, not fixing or giving unsolicited advice. Don’t shy away from difficult topics or asking hard questions (it’s a myth that asking someone about suicide will make them have suicidal thoughts). Opening the door for discussions about tough topics is a wonderful gift. Even if they don’t want to talk at that moment, you’ve given the message that you are there, that you care, and that you are not afraid of what they might be thinking/feeling/experiencing. You’ve just shown yourself to be a safe, supportive ally. 

Be a pushy cheerleader

Encourage your loved one to do things that are healthy for them. Broadly speaking, most people need to move, socialize, do enjoyable things, accomplish tasks, and get outside. And there may be additional things that your loved one needs to do for their own treatment or mental health support. Invite your loved one to do it with you, even if they don’t want to. And heap on the praise and positive reinforcement for any effort they make. Sometimes just getting out of bed when depression is strong is a victory that deserves to be celebrated!

Positive reinforcement can help

You call it bribing. I call reinforcing desired behaviors. Make a deal with your loved one. If they will go to treatment appointments, use their strategies, do one thing every day that supports their mental health, or fill in the blank, then you’ll do fill in the blank. Kids love working for rewards…and so do adults. Many of the adults I work with set up their own reward plans to support their therapy goals

Take care of yourself

It’s important for you to take care of yourself. It can be really challenging to love someone who is struggling with mental health, especially if their symptoms have a direct impact on you. It does not make you selfish or weak or uncaring to do self-care or set boundaries. Being a compassionate collaborator does not mean that you let your loved one treat you poorly, even if their behavior is driven by mental illness.

Have hope

Finally, have hope. It can get better. Incredible people do incredible things every day, even with (or perhaps even because of) mental illness. 

Categories
Podcasts

Parenting During a Pandemic

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If you’re a parent, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that these are very difficult times. During this global pandemic, parents are being asked to simultaneously do multiple different jobs at the same time, and the expectations and evaluations we’re placing on ourselves can be crushing. Pandemic parenting leaves adult feeling overwhelmed.

I recently stumbled upon a meme on Facebook, of all things, and I knew that I had to reach out to its author to ask her to come on the podcast.  

Here’s an excerpt from that meme: 

Working, parenting, and teaching are three different jobs that cannot be done at the same time. It’s not hard because you’re doing it wrong. It’s hard because it’s too much. Do the best you can. Prioritize your mental health.

Such compassionate words that so many of us need to hear right now. Words written by this week’s guest, Dr. Emily King.  

Dr. Emily King is a Licensed Psychologist and Heath Services Provider in private practice in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in working with children and adolescents with anxiety, ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Dr. King received her Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

In this episode we touch on: 

  • The importance of self-compassion in times like these 
  • How you can use anchor points in your routine to help everyone feel more comfortable where they’re at in their day 
  • The unique needs that kids might have during these times and how we can help them thrive through them. 
  • What self-care looks like and how we can cultivate it to help us show up as our best 
  • How to cultivate more compassionate, open communication with our partners and spouses during this intense time 

I know you’re going to appreciate this conversation with Dr. Emily King. Please share this with another parent who might need some compassion during this time. 

Categories
Podcasts

How to Build Psychological Strength Through Parenting

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Hey parents out there, this week’s episode is one you want to pay attention to as we discuss psychological strength through parenting. We are joined by clinical psychologist, Dr. Karen Cassiday, and she is here to shed some light on the pitfalls of parenting, and how to ease the anxiety associated with it. 

We have discussed the importance of developing mental strength just as you would with physical exercise for your physical health. But when it comes to child development, parenting style, and factoring in other family members and life events, mental toughness can become confusing.

During a challenging time with your child, have you ever questioned yourself and wondered whether you were doing the right thing? Have you wondered whether it is better to engage with your child in this moment or ignore them? Have you thought that maybe you’re causing psychological problems or distress when your child is crying or screaming at the top of their lungs?

Handling an upset child can feel uncomfortable, but being able to problem solve as a mentally strong parent helps your kid’s mental strength as well. This week we have a guest that focuses on anxiety disorders and building mental strength to help you feel good about parenting. When there’s a child involved or another parent, it becomes about more than operating outside of your comfort zone or deploying cognitive-behavioral actionable steps.

This week’s episode is for you. This week, we’re speaking with Dr. Karen Cassiday. An expert in her field, and a guest that we know is going to bring you confidence in tough parenting situations, Dr. Cassiday will equip you with the knowledge necessary to step into your role as parent, and help your children handle daily life that can sometimes be so stressful.

Dr. Cassiday received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology in 1990 from the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. She has conducted extensive research on anxiety and is widely published. She is nationally recognized as an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of anxiety disorders in children, teens and adults.

She is the Past President of the prestigious Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and served on the board of Beyond OCD Chicago.  She is a Founding Fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, and one of only 3 certified Cognitive Therapy Consultants in the state of Illinois. Dr. Cassiday also serves on the faculty of the International Obsessive Compulsive Foundation Behavior Therapy Institute, and at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.  

Dr. Cassiday has appeared as an expert consultant on Animal Hoarders on TNT and on NBC’s Today Show.  She is a sought-after national speaker on television, radio and at professional training seminars. Her expertise has been tapped through commentary in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and numerous other publications.

Dr. Cassiday is the expert in her field, so listen to this week’s episode to better exercise mental muscle and glean a better understanding of anxiety, no matter who it affects in your family. You will walk away having learned what having mental strength involves, to help you and your kids build happier, healthier lives. 

Relevant Links:

Relevant Links:

Moms Without Worry