What is the Best Way to Support Family Members With Mental Health Problems?
With the world grappling with the outbreak of COVID-19 and all of the government lockdowns that the population has endured, there has never been a greater risk of a family member developing a mental illness.
Mental illness can be very difficult to deal with and can take a toll on you as a carer. Nobody ever wants to see a family member going through something as difficult as a mental illness and watching as they become a shadow of their former self, lost in the prison of their own mind.
Society will often dismiss mental illness without giving it the proper attention. If you had a physical illness, people would be lining up to offer support and love. But it seems that you are often left to your own devices when it comes to mental health. Those who have a mental illness are often told to “just suck it up” or “deal with it, buttercup”, to name a few phrases. You’ll even end up with well-meaning people telling you your life isn’t that bad and others have it worse.
I’ve often said this, but why does somebody else’s suffering invalidate our own? Nobody suggests that someone with cancer is not going through one hell of a time. Still, it doesn’t mean our mental illness should be just casually discarded due to that.
But what do people who are going through a mental illness need from you? Your love, understanding and willingness to stand by them as they manage their mental illness is what the doctor ordered.
This article will talk about different ways you can offer support to a family member facing issues because of mental illnesses.
Warning Signs of Mental Health Issues
There are many mental illnesses with different symptoms. It is often unclear what is going on with the family member, and they may need your assistance to help them understand. Here is a list of some of the potential symptoms they may be displaying/experiencing:
- Having difficulties at school
- Loss of focus and increased mistakes at work
- Avoiding social interactions
- Loss of sleep
- Decreased appetite
- Dramatic changes in personality
- Extreme mood swings
- Lack of interest in interests or hobbies they used to enjoy
- Having unusual and scary thoughts
- Hearing unusual voices
- Emotional numbness
- Prolonged sickness and weakness
- Unusual anxiety attacks
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Suicidal thoughts or conversations with you or anyone around you
It is also important to note that not all of these symptoms can be directly attributed to mental illness, as physical illnesses can also exhibit some of these symptoms. In any event, discussing with your GP / Doctor so they can rule in/out conditions is the best move.
How Should You Approach Your Family Member?
Deciding to approach your family member is the first big step for you. The easiest way to start the conversation with them is to let them know that you have noticed a change in their behaviour and that you love them and want to make sure they are ok. Encourage them to share their feelings and emotions and not invalidate them. Keep in mind that your loved one may be defensive, and do not take offence to their initial reaction to the conversation.
Remember, you are not a mental health professional. Nobody expects you to be perfect and know 100% what you are doing. Your real goal should be to have your family member assessed by your family doctor, as they can get the ball rolling and advise what the next steps should be. If your family member has issues with this, a good way to describe it is if you had a physical health issue, you would see your doctor; mental health is the same. Your brain is just like an engine in a car; when it goes wrong, things go awry.
Nonetheless, the key to all of this is respectful and loving conversations. Try to get your loved ones to open up about their feelings and thoughts before reaching any conclusion or pushing them into seeking professional help.
How To Create A Safe Space
Mental illness often causes a lot of stress for your family member. One way you can help them is to create a safe space for them to share their thoughts and feelings. You can start with:
- Giving Them an Open Space to Share
Putting all your suggestions, opinions, and judgments aside, give your loved ones an open space to share their feelings and thoughts. You can be the first person they open up to, so let them set their pace. Whether they want to share less or more, don’t try to make them speak.
- Avoid Making a Diagnosis or Questioning their Feelings
It is not up to you to make a diagnosis or second guess their feelings; you are only responsible for providing them with a safe environment through talking. No matter how eager you are to offer support, you can’t make a professional diagnosis or question their feelings.
- Encourage Seeking Help and Self-Care
If you see any signs of distress and severe mental health issues, try to encourage them to seek professional help. Offer to go with them to professionals as having a support person can be a welcome relief. Also, remember it’s not up to you to share anything you learn in confidence. Nothing ruins trust faster than you talking with others about things you learn.
Remind them that decision making remains with them, and they are still in control because nobody wants to lose control of their own life. Self-care is also an important aspect, such as personal hygiene, eating healthy and getting some light exercise. These are just some of the things that can help improve mental health.
No matter how worried, eager, and genuinely supportive you are of your loved one’s mental health problems, talking about them can be somewhat complicated; however, you can make it easier with the right strategy.
It’s also important to realise that while you may want to help your family member, things may not progress as fast as you would like. They have to be ready to receive that help. Remember the old adage, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. So don’t get upset or impatient, as that can also destroy the trust you have worked so hard to build up.