Mental illness has a negative stigma in our society, so many times people don’t want to talk about it. But the truth is, people struggling with mental illnesses need the support of friends and family. Learning more about specific mental conditions and how to compassionately provide support for a friend who is suffering can help overcome the negative stereotypes.
Here are six ways you can support a friend or loved one with a mental disorder.
Learn All You Can
Ignorance can be dangerous, especially when it comes to mental illness Find out everything you can about the condition your friend is struggling with. The more you understand the causes and symptoms of the disorder, the easier it will be for you to be supportive. You can never know what it feels like to face this illness, but you can better imagine what your friend is going through. Do some research and read everything you can find about the condition. Check scientific and credible sources like National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) or current articles on the latest research and treatment options.
Encourage your friend to seek professional treatment, and support their efforts to do so. Mental illness, for many, is a long-term battle. Treatment must continue regularly, sometimes indefinitely. Your friend will have times when they’re discouraged or just tired of constant treatment, whether it’s due to their meds, therapy or both. You can help by always supporting their efforts to continue treatment. Offer to drive them to an appointment or postpone a social engagement so it doesn’t conflict with a scheduled therapy session or meeting. If you show your friend that treatment for their mental illness is a priority, it will help them continue their efforts to seek treatment.
Set Your Own Boundaries
It’s important to be sensitive to the needs of your friend who’s struggling with a mental illness. Being kind to them, however, doesn’t mean you must allow inappropriate behavior. A mental illness is no excuse for bad behavior that infringes on your ability to enjoy your own life. Expecting to be treated with kindness and respect is part of a healthy friendship, even when you’re friends with someone struggling with a mental illness. By allowing your friend to treat you poorly, you’re not helping them control the symptoms of their disease — instead, you’re making it okay for them to let the disease control their life, which isn’t helpful for either of you.
Don’t Place Blame
People in difficult situations often want to blame someone for their troubles, which essentially deflects their attention away from trying to solve the problem. In some ways, it also makes them feel better about themselves, temporarily. Placing blame is not usually helpful and often keeps the person from focusing on what they can do to improve their current situation. Help your friend focus on productive activities and treatments that will limit their symptoms in the future instead of blaming anyone for their current condition.
One of the most common factors in mental illnesses is a lack of control. People struggling with mental illness feel like they’ve lost control of themselves and their lives. Part of treating a mental disorder is helping the patient regain a sense of control and a means of managing their own life. You can help your friend by allowing them to manage their situation as much as possible. Asking about medications and treatments can be seen as an effort on your part to take control. Be mindful of not controlling your friend’s life by placing limits on them or attempting to oversee their treatment. Let them be in control of treatment options and ask you for help when they need it. Your support will be a constant reminder that you’re willing to help whenever they ask.
Adjust Your Expectations
Mental illness is different from physical illness in that you can’t see the problem. When your friend doesn’t look sick, you may forget they’re struggling with a mental disorder. It’s great to have a positive outlook, but you should also set realistic expectations. Most people with mental illness struggle with it their whole lives. They may have long periods of time when it seems under control, until there’s a sudden resurgence of symptoms — you shouldn’t expect that after a few good weeks in a row, your friend is cured. There will likely be more flare-ups later on.
Remember to Look Out for Yourself, Too
One thing people often forget while supporting a friend with a mental illness is that you may need support, too. At Hillside, our programs include people in our client’s support system because we recognize that they are an essential part of our client’s recovery.
If you have a friend who is struggling with mental illness, check out your local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter or find a support group that can give you the information and guidance you need to continue being a supportive friend. Contact Hillside to learn about our community outreach programs and the other services we provide to help heal and rebuild families by giving the patient and their loved ones the support they need.