Categories
Blogs

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
Blogs

Stress Together: Social Support Protects Against Stress

I was thrilled a few years ago when M, my college roommate, decided to move to Kansas City. I loved the idea of having my oldest and closest friend within walking distance after years of being several states away. Sadly, this weekend is her last in KC. As conflicted as I am about her move (selfishly, I want her to stay. As her friend, I believe this is right for her, and I’m excited for her new adventure), I know she is stressed. Packing and preparing for a move is no small task…even when you think it will be…which is why I volunteered to help.

“You don’t have to help me pack and clean,” she said. “Uh huh. Where’s the tape?” I asked. Packing isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s a lot like 3D Tetris, which I happen to be surprisingly good at it. As we wrapped up that day, she was thankful and seemed a bit relieved, and it felt good to me to be able to support her and help in a very real way.

Share the load: Social support reduces stress

Did you know that social support is one of the biggest protective factors against stress? Having people who care there to lend a listening ear or a helping hand is invaluable during tough times. Not only do we feel cared for and less alone, which reduces stress, but social support also boosts our resilience (our ability to adapt in the face of adversity and bounce back from hardships). What’s more, having a social support network also impacts our stress response on a physical level by settling down some of our body’s reactions to stress. It’s no secret that reducing your stress level not only improves mental health, but also your physical health. The effects of stress run deep, so prioritizing stress relief and eliminating stressful situations by leaning on your social support network greatly improves your life. 

It’s not just receiving social support that helps us feel less stressed. Giving support does, too! It’s a similar situation, though, in that giving support not only feels good emotionally, but it also seems to have a calming effect on our body’s stress response. This is just one of the many health benefits of deepening our social support network and enriching social connection and social relationships. 

Types of social support

Social support during times of stress can take different forms. Often, we think about emotional support – someone being there for us, listening, sitting in the ick with us, expressing care, and being on our side. It’s a powerful thing to feel emotionally supported during times of stress, and that sense of connection buffers us against the multifaceted stress response.

Sometimes, however, what we need to give or get from our support system is instrumental support. We need concrete help alleviating the burden, whether that’s helping a friend pack, offering childcare, providing financial support, going to a doctor’s appointment, or making a meal. This type of support helps reduce or remove the source of stress. We are inherently social creatures designed to live in a connected community. We are not meant to be fully independent, and it’s not a weakness or a fail to need help sometimes. Life is hard. We’re human, and we need help.

Isolation and stress

We are literally wired for human connection. Yet, when we are struggling internally, many of us instinctively withdraw. We go further inward, pulling away from others. We don’t feel like socializing or being around loved ones.

We may worry about the impact our burdens will have on our loved ones. Concerns about weighing them down, making them worry, or bringing them down by not being fun or happy can all push us toward withdrawal as well. That’s unfortunate because doing so prevents us from using one of our best stress management tools and deprives them of that benefit as well. Next time you find yourself in the midst of a hard day or feeling stressed out, lighten the load and let a friend, family or community member, or a co-worker be there to support you. It’s good for you both.

The wrong kind of social support

When it comes to receiving and giving social support in the face of stress, I want to call out two pitfalls to be wary of: venting and invalidation.

Venting isn’t always a good thing

It can feel good to vent to someone about the things stressing us out, but it you pay close attention, you’ll realize that venting isn’t always that helpful. Rumination is a nasty mental habit of looping endlessly on the same, typically negative thoughts, and venting often turns into ruminating out loud. When you rehash the same territory again and again, without a resolution or new insights, you’ve crossed into unhelpful venting. While it may on some level feel nice to share your frustrations with another person, especially if they agree with you, you’ll likely notice that your emotional landscape is anger, stress, worry, or sadness. You’re unnecessarily feeling the same things all over again, like stoking a fire that needs to die out.

Keep in the mind the difference between processing (making sense out of a situation and your reaction), problem-solving (coming up with a feasible solution to change or address the situation), and venting (rehashing and complaining repeatedly). Spend your time and energy on the first two and skip the latter.

Invalidation

Validation is an important relationship skill that involves recognizing and affirming another’s emotional experience. Invalidation, on the other hand, takes the form of denying, dismissing, or rejecting their emotional experience. It is a sneakily damaging thing that negatively impacts our nervous systems and erodes relationships and trust over time.

While some people intentionally use invalidation as a tool to manipulate, most people are well-intentioned and don’t even realize that they are being invalidating.

In an effort to help others feel better, we say accidentally invalidating things that actually hurt more than help. These kinds of statements come from a good place, our desire to help them feel better, alleviate some of their burden, or help them navigate a difficult situation. Unfortunately, they tend to feel dismissive, rejecting, or denying. Keep an eye out for comments like these common responses:

  • “It could be worse.”
  • “But at least…” (Finding the bright side can be quite a helpful strategy at times but not others.)
  • “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • “Don’t be sad/anxious/embarrassed.”
  • “I don’t know why that bothers you so much.”
  • “You shouldn’t let that get you down.”

Instead, try reflecting back their feelings. Acknowledging another’s emotional experience does not mean you agree with it. It just means you see them and you understand them. Try something like “I can see how stressed you are” or “That sounds really tough” or (my personal favorite) “Of course you feel ____! That makes sense.” Once you’ve validated and offered support, you can shift into problem-solving or letting go or whatever the next step needs to be.

Strengthen your important relationships

Strong healthy relationships are important for more reasons that just managing stress, so it’s well worth the effort to develop effective relationship skills. In fact, relationships is one of the key elements of psychological strength. The next Peak Mind Quarterly Psych Strength Workshop is coming up on Tuesday April 12, 2022 and we’re focusing on communication styles. This workshop will help you understand your own communication style and characteristic ways of relating to others. It will also help you better understand important people in your life and gain more effective ways of communicating and connecting with them.

Develop a comprehensive personalized stress management plan

Last week, we made our Stress Management Mini-Course available to our community for the first time, and many of you took quick action to get a handle on stress. Kudos to you! If you haven’t yet, now is the time to redefine your relationship with stress and learn to navigate it with ease. Through this link only, you can get the Stress Management Mini-Course AND add Self-Care [by Design], our most popular course, for only $10. 

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”
 – Fred Rogers