A quick note: I wrote a piece called How To Love Someone Without A Mental Illness in which I discuss simple strategies for someone in the dark of depression to make intentional efforts in their relationships with caring loved ones. This is a follow-up post directed specifically to those without a mental illness who care for someone suffering.
Since starting Dadding Depressed, I have had the opportunity to talk with many people of whom I might not have even met had I not tapped away on a keyboard 115 blogposts ago. It has been validating for me personally as many people who can relate to my struggles have come forward, and it has been encouraging to hear of readers benefitting from my general pondering. And a question that comes up somewhat often when I’m talking with readers is how can I support a loved one who suffers from a mental illness?
The details of every case, of course, vary. Sometimes, the person asking me the question has a suspicion that their loved one might be depressed or overly anxious and is interested in starting that dialogue. Other times, the question is asked in the aftermath of a sensitive conversation in which their loved one bravely confided in them. In the latter case, it can be daunting to enter the caverns of someone else’s struggle. How do you navigate such a situation? What should you say or what should you not say? How do you stay afloat when someone else is clinging to your shoulders for support?
Whether the conversation just started with your loved one or you hope to initiate one soon, here are some important things to keep in mind as you strive to be a strong and healthy support. At the very least, these are things that I have personally appreciated in my circle.
Listen, Listen, Listen
“We don’t kill ourselves; we implode/From the depths, a ticking in our souls.”
These are the opening lines for a song I wrote called Letters (yeah, I write songs, and sing ’em too, check out my music here). The tune is a twining together of a young man’s suicide and my personal struggle with depression/anxiety. I think this opening line is provocatively fitting because those with a mental illness are often trapped inside their own heads, overwhelmed by the prospect of transparency with anyone. And, sadly, when these issues are kept hidden, too often, the individual implodes.
Even if you don’t believe having an open conversation is a big deal, the mere anticipation of it has likely filled the person to the brim with dread and anxiety. When the thoughts, worries, or self-hatred, begin to leak out, it’s probable the dam will break and you will get drenched in word vomit that has collected for years behind a cement skull.
What comes flooding out may not seem rational to you (it might not be rational), it might not make much sense, and it’s likely that you’ll flat-out disagree with most of what is said. But there is a time and a place for your wisdom, your arguments for their self-worth, or your suck-it-up logic. The moment they are spewing their innards is not it.
Remember, the most powerful weapons in breaking down barriers are listening ears and attentive eyes. People with a mental illness need to get out of their own heads and learn for themselves that you are a safe person to talk to about their struggles. Listen, listen, listen!
Avoid Big Reactions
Are you a gasper? A crier? A screamer? Hold it together, man! Big reactions are a major deterrent for many struggling with a mental illness as such a response to their efforts of transparency only reinforces the shame and embarrassment they likely already feel. No matter what bomb your loved one drops on you, strive to be a kind, patient, and calm listening ear. Take comfort in and remind yourself of the fact that right now, because they are with you, they are safe. Also, they are familiar and, in a twisted way, comfortable with their darkness. Reacting dramatically will only encourage them to cower again in their hole like a groundhog, and discourage them from trying again.
Validate Your View Of Them
When someone you love admits to self-hatred, self-harm, depression, or anxiety, human instinct is to validate them as an individual (“You’re so smart, beautiful, handsome, talented”). And while that is a beneficial thing to do, it would be even better if you validated your view of them, especially in the moment they confide in you. This approach has the potential to do two things:
- When you validate your view of someone rather than the actual someone, it is harder for them to disagree with you or discredit what you said. For instance, instead of saying, “You’re so brave to open up about this,” to which they could reply, “No, I’m really not,” say something like, “I really respect and admire the bravery you’ve shown in sharing this with me.”
- Validating your view of the person speaks against their temptation to assume that they know what you’re thinking. Being open and honest is difficult because it puts the person in a vulnerable spot, and leaves them to ask the question, “what does this person think of me now?” You making the effort to validate your view of them confirms that your love and your care has not changed, and maybe only even deepened, with the news of their personal struggle.
When I was an area director at a summer camp (which pretty much means I was the counselor of the counselors), I encouraged my staff to avoid prying into their campers’ lives. It might sound ridiculous, but when your job is to basically change kids’ lives, and when you’ve experienced amazing breakthroughs with campers past, it’s easy to fall into the trap of impatiently digging for the juicy stuff to surface.
And sometimes, even not at camp, we feel entitled to hearing about the shadows in an loved one’s life. We all like drama, but it’s deeper than that. As humans we pine for authenticity, and when a relationship reaches a certain point of intimacy, we tend to think that the other person’s sharing (or concealing) of their struggles is a reflection of our personal friendship. But, it is 100% not.
You do not deserve to know someone else’s issues; you are not entitled to it. Instead, when someone shares with you something sensitive like a mental illness, thank them profusely. Thank them for being honest and for trusting the relationship and for deepening the friendship. Their transparency is a gift to you; treat it as such with great care and gratitude.
Ask Thoughtful Questions
Questions are a powerful tool. Each one is like a doorway into more pondering and profound realizations. And when you are the asker, you have the ability to guide the answerer through the depths of thought. Open-ended, sensitive, and non-accusatory questions can do wonders for your relationship with your loved one, and if asked right, they can even help guide the individual to their own positive conclusions. We all remember epiphanies much better if we believe we came to them on our own. So, when in conversation, if a thought comes to mind, try leading your loved one to the answer through the art of questioning, rather than shoving it down their throat. It’s a beautiful practice to think with the person, and not at them.
Encourage Them To Seek Help
No matter how wise you think you are, or even how experienced you might be with mental health issues, encouraging your loved one to see a doctor or a therapist is vital to their health. I got so annoyed by my wife and best friend urging me to see a doctor that I finally went just to shut them up. And I’m glad and extremely grateful to each of them for having pushed me in a positive direction. I have a close circle of supportive loved ones in my battle against mental illness, but nothing quite compares to the knowledgeable help of a professional.
Those with a mental illness dread seeking professional help because it can feel like it is the official confirmation of their perceived insanity. But it’s not a confirmation of insanity; it’s simply medical attention for a sick person.
Most probably won’t go on their own, and they need loved ones to encourage them to do so. (Notice I said encourage. Please don’t kidnap them.)
Your loved one’s depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts didn’t sneak in their head overnight, and after, probably years, of making its home, it won’t leave overnight either, no matter how great of a support you are. Come to terms with this reality, and try not to be results-oriented in your interaction with them. You both will have frustrating and disheartening moments, but focus on being relationally-oriented, and be patient.
Be Cautious Of The Advice You Give
A lot of bad advice comes from well-meaning fools. Remember the words of Plato.
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something.”
You can’t fix all of the issues of a loved one with a mental illness so don’t even try, and don’t overwhelm yourself with the pressure to save the day. Be a listening ear, avoid big reactions, validate your view of them, thank them, ask thoughtful questions, be patient and encourage them to seek professional care. If you focus on doing these things, I think you’ll be well on your way to being a strong and healthy support to the person you love.
What do you think? Do you support someone or do you have a strong circle of support? What do they do or not do that is helpful for you?