by Rebecca Potts
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. You can learn more about Mental Health Awareness Month on the Mental Health America website.
Five years ago, I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and panic disorder. I had been dealing with all of them for far longer than five years, but I didn’t understand myself well enough to know what was happening. Although, some days, I think I knew the whole time what was going on, and I just didn’t want to face that reality. I resisted putting a label on what I was feeling for quite some time, because a diagnosis felt far too permanent to me. It felt like a label I couldn’t get rid of; like a sticker that peels off in the tiniest pieces and just ends up looking like a mess.
When I was finally diagnosed, I ended up becoming a mental health advocate and sharing my experience about a year later. The response from friends, family, and community was overwhelmingly encouraging. Of course, not every reaction was positive, and it isn’t lost on me that that may be the norm for a multitude of people living with a mental health condition. Sometimes, our friends and family aren’t quite sure how to support us, and it can be equally as difficult to explain the best approach to take. Most of the time, we aren’t even sure what kind of support we need.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which is fantastic, because we don’t talk about mental health enough. But one of the things we talk about less than mental health is how to support people in your life who are dealing with a mental health condition. It can be confusing for friends and family to understand exactly what having a mental health condition is like, and unfortunately, it can be even more difficult to explain. Here’s a definitely-not-exhaustive list of some things that you can do for the people in your lives who might be living with a mental health condition:
1. Show them you care. This seems like an obvious one, but it’s often overlooked. So how do you show them you care? Unconditional love, patience, and acceptance. Being supported and loved without judgment or criticism is one of the most healing experiences that anyone can have. And struggling alone or feeling blame or judgment because of an illness is almost always detrimental to the healing process. It’s crucial that your loved one feels they can come home to a supportive and safe environment, because a lot of people outside of their network will not understand their experience.
2. Listen when they need to talk. Being heard makes everyone feel valued, important, and respected. I mentioned before that I have depression, and when I don’t feel heard, I internalize that and blame myself for not being interesting or entertaining enough. Then, my anxiety kicks in (my depression’s BFF), and suddenly my head is swimming with self-deprecating thoughts and damaging theories about why I’m not “good enough.” It’s a vicious, but familiar cycle to so many people dealing with mental illness, and we should all probably listen to each other a lot more anyway.
3. Inform yourself about their illness. Learn as much as you can about the illness your loved one is living with: symptoms, treatments, biology, etc. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths out there about mental health and learning the facts can help you better understand what your loved one needs. Learn some ways to help deescalate a mental health crisis and know where you can take your loved one in case they need medical care.
4. Ask questions if you’re not sure. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you should know exactly how to help your loved one and feeling terrible that you don’t. It’s perfectly fine to ask. Guessing how to help your loved one can lead to misunderstanding on both sides, which makes things more difficult for everyone and could impede recovery.
5 Remember to take care of yourself. There’s a reason why every airline tells you to put your mask on before helping anyone else. It’s important to remember that it isn’t your responsibility to “fix” your loved one and it isn’t your failure if they continue to struggle. Recovery is an ongoing process, and you’ll inevitably hit some snags along the way. Try not to feel helpless if you don’t see results right away, or even within a few months. Look into counseling for yourself, or check into family support groups that you can go to together. There are so many resources out there, so take advantage of them.
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.