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How To Support Loved Ones Facing Mental Illness

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Chronic illness is tough on caregivers; this we understand. But what about chronic mental health? We know there are professionals who work on the front lines of mental health and we’re thankful.

“At least 8.4 million people in the U.S. provide care to an adult with a mental or emotional health issue.”

NAMI.org https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

Mental Illness is a chronic mental health issue. It can’t be cured; only managed. We, who have a mental illness, are the 20% suffering. This is what we want you, the healthy, to know. And to the advocates, thank you. We realize you want to know how to support your friends and family who struggle with mental health. This article is for you.

Being Physically Ill

When we come down with the flu, have surgery, or break a bone, there is a path to healing. Our friends and family know there is a distinct timeline from injury or illness to wholeness. Those helping us recover be it a partner, parent, or friend understand the things to do on this timeline. They fix us with chicken soup, driving us to the hospital, or buying groceries. 

Chronic conditions, however, are a bit different. They’re not seen. There isn’t a cast. There are no external scars. We call this an invisible illness. There is a whole movement for awareness around invisible illnesses like Lupus, Fibromyalgia, MECFS, Diabetes, and the list goes on. But that’s another blog post.

Mental Illness is Different

When we talk about mental health, it’s easy to take a light approach, “I’m taking a mental health day,” we tell our friends. And it’s not bad to do so; it’s because we’re overwhelmed. It’s a temporary condition like recovering from the flu. You come out on the other side. However, mental illness is a chronic mental health issue – there is no other side. 

Like chronic illness that affects the body, mental illness is something that cannot be cured – it is only managed. What’s worse is that mental illnesses, like depression, put us at higher risk for physical health issues as well. It makes sense. We’re in our physical and emotional cave so we don’t walk. (I call it a cave because that is the only description people seem to understand. It’s dark. Solitary. Closed in.)

“People with depression have a 40% higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases than the general population. People with serious mental illness are nearly twice as likely to develop these conditions.”

NAMI.org https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

Mental Health Awareness

Mental health awareness is important but it is also hard for us to come out of our cave – or closet. As we who manage mental illnesses navigate relationships, it can be even more challenging. On which date do we tell the person across the table that we have panic attacks, anxiety, bipolar disorder?

As we begin to accept our condition, we become brave. We are bold and ask for help. What’s the answer? More often than not we are told to “just be happy.” We speak to our family and they tell us to get out of bed. Our friends suggest natural remedies and shame us for using our prescribed medication. Our psychiatrists and counselors even sometimes say and do things they shouldn’t like “wow, I need therapy” or leave the room because they’re crying uncontrollably. 

What happens to us then? For some, this lights a fire in their soul and their voice becomes louder, stronger. The rest of us realize we made a big mistake telling people and go back to our cave. We have to be encouraged by therapists to keep one or two people aware of our true state of mind. What’s the result? We feel even more alone and misunderstood than we did before. 

The aim of this article is to help you help us – the millions of us, the 20%.

“1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year.”

NAMI.org https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers

What I Wish You Knew About Mental Illness

Instead of putting words into other people’s mouths, I’ve reached out to several people in the WordPress community who are comfortable speaking in public about mental illness. 

I have generalized anxiety disorder and depression. That diagnosis in early 2017 caused me to regret some of my misinformed opinions and judgements in my past. Most recently, I reached out to a sweet man I was dating and apologized. I’m happy to say that we’ve been able to reconcile and build on our friendship.

I wish people knew that the medication my doctors have prescribed to me are as vital to me as insulin is to a diabetic. 

“The first thing we have to do to help others is properly take care of ourselves first. We’re no good if we’re not healthy. Creating a no-judgment zone and leading with empathy and understanding are so critical. It doesn’t mean you have a solution or fix, so often it means, ‘I’m here with you. I love you. I support you. You’re not alone.’”

Cory Miller

“If you notice that someone in your environment is not well or has become very quiet you can offer your support without being intrusive. For example: ‘I get the impression that you’re not feeling well. Is there something I can do for you?’ This question alone can make the person concerned feel that there is someone who cares about me.”  

Birgit Olzem

“I have family members who deal with mental illness. One person has a severe condition. These are not issues that get better on their own! There should not be a stigma about seeing a doctor regularly or getting medication to deal with severe conditions. It is possible to live a somewhat normal life, but only if you face facts; sometimes medication is necessary. If you have clinical depression, talk to a counselor or a doctor. Maybe medication is right for you. Remember that clinical depression lies to you. It is not something you can just ‘think happy thoughts’ and cure. Clinical depression is something that doesn’t go away. Likewise for conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Mental illness and mental health takes many different forms and there are many degrees of severity. Don’t be ashamed to get help from your physician. They can help.”

John Locke

“Mental illness is a brain condition. Just like Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, epilepsy, or Parkinson’s. It’s just that somehow, society decided that it’s shameful to have anxiety or depression or bipolar or PTSD, all of which are scientifically proven brain conditions just like the others. So what I ask of you is this: Try to think of what I deal with as something like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Sometimes it flares up, and other times I’m doing well. It’s just like any other condition. People with mental illness deserve the same patience, empathy, and compassion as someone who has MS, epilepsy, or any other brain condition.”

Pam Aungst

“First, there is a big difference between mental health and mental illness. Mental health can be learned behavior but it includes things such as imposter syndrome, burnout, low morale, and things like that. Mental illness is a life-long chronic illness. It’s a hidden illness most of the time and there is a huge stigma telling people you have bipolar, PTSD, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc. I lost many dates and jobs with that conversation.”

Ronald Huereca

“I wish people knew that even when I look like I have it all together, I’m still struggling. I can be doing everything right – meds, rest, schedule, eating well, meditating – I’m still walking around counting things, feeling anxious that a horrible and unlikely thing might happen, while my brain pings from one to-do-item to the next. And when you can do those things and not look “crazy” I think people forget you struggle when you appear capable most of the time. It’s exhausting just maintaining “normal” daily tasks sometimes.”

Chris Ford

“It is more compassionate and helpful to offer empathy rather than sympathy or pity. Brené Brown does an excellent job explaining it in this video ( https://youtu.be/1Evwgu369Jw ), but the biggest difference is that empathy nurtures connection by allowing you to listen and share understanding of someone’s experience, while pity and sympathy create distance by placing yourself outside of that experience. I love her description of how searching for a silver lining (the “at least…” phrases) can often be more harmful than helpful when someone is in pain.”

Michelle Schulp

What Do You Wish We Knew?

Tell us in the comments or, as always, reach out to us here online.

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