Practical Tips to Support Someone You Love with Mental Illness

We need your help, even when we don’t act like it

“When a man gets depressed, it’s not exactly like people stand in line to spend time with him. When you suffer a bout of major depression, the only good thing that happens is that you learn who your true friends are.” — Randy Withers

I wrote yesterday on the topic of being alone and lonely from the perspective of someone living with mental illness. There’s a flip side to that perspective: someone who loves a mental illness sufferer. We’re not easy to love — and we know it. We don’t want to be a burden; we don’t want to bring you down, bring the group down. We censor what we say. We listen to the voices in our head that say it’s better to pull back, to pull away, to isolate.

Loving someone with mental illness is work. Real work.

And then we feel guilty for leaving the kids to eat cereal for the umpteenth night in a row because cooking feels overwhelming. We feel bad for our spouse, left sexless and carrying the burden for the entire household. We see contempt in their eyes for our unshowered appearance, our “laziness” for not tidying up after ourselves. We see their frustration when we pick a fight or lash out over something small and insignificant. We feel terrible for abandoning our friends, when we are able to feel our emotions at all.

What we see as sufferers is not always what they see as our support network.

“I love her, and I want her to feel better. I just don’t know what I can do,” a husband laments. Another, a friend, chimes in, “She pushes me away. Every time I invite her out, she cancels at the last minute. When we do get together, she just complains all the time. Honestly, it does bring me down. I miss my friend, but at some point I need to take care of myself, too, you know?”

Small, practical actions smooth the recovery road.

Loving someone with mental illness is work. Real work. And over time, no matter how deeply you care, it is natural to feel helpless and just step back until we “figure it out” and get better. Unfortunately, that often serves to speed up the downward cycle we are on and pulls a ladder out of the pit we are in. We may not act like it, but we want you to fight for us. Even when we say we don’t.

So, loved ones, here are a few practical tips you can do to help those who are in a storm:

1. Keep calling, keep texting, even if you don’t get a response.
Your repeated outreach demonstrates that you have not forgotten us and that we matter to you. It lets us know that someone cares, even if the voice in our head says you are doing it “just to be nice.”

2. Show up unexpectedly.
Depending on the severity of our condition, make us get out of the house, take a shower, or at least do one thing for ourselves. Bring us coffee or a special treat. These little actions make us feel special and loved, and provide a spark of light and hope in our day.

3. Help us make and keep doctor appointments, or drive us to the pharmacy.
We commonly skip these appointments because the effort to get there seems too big, and we are experts in creating excuses for why “today is a bad day” or “I don’t really need to go.”

It is natural to feel helpless and just step back until we “figure it out” and get better.

Removing those barriers, reducing the friction for self-care is often the first step in our recovery process — and knowing someone loves us enough to help us often provides an additional stimulus. It also creates accountability. If you are coming by to pick us up, we know there’s no getting out of it.

Working spouses, reach out to a church or a local ride share option and arrange for pickup and transportation for these tasks to be completed while you are working. The more friction you can reduce, the more likely it is that your spouse will get and stay on the road to recovery.

4. Help us open our mail and get our bills paid.
I’m not saying pay them for us, but I am saying that we often need help with opening mail and making sure the rent check is written and delivered on time. The last thing we need in a time of despair is to lose our home on top of everything else we have going on, and sometimes the effort of just writing a check literally feels too difficult.

5. Bring over dinner, or tidy a small section of our house.
Good nutrition is often one of the first things to go, and it’s tremendously helpful to our recovery. Additionally, we have trouble caring for ourselves and our environment. Picking a small space and making it clean and tidy gives us a retreat of beauty and peace. These small, practical actions smooth the recovery road, too.

6. Say these four words: You. Are. Not. Alone.
Where we may reject “I love you,” or “It’s no problem; I’m happy to help you,” “you are not alone” bridges the gap between the isolation we feel and the reality of your love for us. If you get nothing else out of this post, if you take no other tip away, I’m fine with that. This is the most powerful action you can take.

7. Tell us you’re praying for us.
Even if we don’t have a spiritual walk, most people won’t refuse prayer. Telling us you’re praying for us is another way to signal that you are on our side.

…And a few things NOT to do…

1. Do not put yourself in harm’s way to help a friend living through one of these storms.
If you’re in danger, you can’t help us. If you’re in danger because you’ve been helping us, you will resent us and that will kill our relationship.

2. Don’t give us money for bills (unless you share a roof with us).
At most, maybe buy us coffee, or lunch, or help us cover a prescription. If we are truly indigent and cannot live on our own, help us get to a place where we will be safe.

Say these four words: You. Are. Not. Alone.

If you are a spouse, however, and you’ve needed two incomes to cover your bills, you will have to get more involved and possibly even pick up a second job or take emergency time off work. I promise you, we see it and know we are putting you through unnecessary stress and we feel terrible about it. It’s a tough line to walk, but you may become a temporary single parent — and you’ve picked up an extra child (us) along the way. Like every parent does, that means making sure we get to our doctor appointments. As we get better, we’ll be able to pick up our share of the load again.

3. It’s OK to take breaks from us.
It’s not your obligation to make us happy, and we know that it can be tough to be around someone struggling to find their way out of darkness. Fighting for us doesn’t mean constantly living in our dark world. Take care of your own mental health, too.

4. Don’t let us be rude or mean to you.
We may lash out due to fear, but that doesn’t excuse our behavior. Respond compassionately and be clear that you won’t tolerate it.

It’s not easy to love someone suffering from mental illness. Often, we reject the help that we so desperately need. The more you fight for us, the more you help us, the more likely it is that we will recover and get better. Hopefully, these practical tips empower you to know how you can help.

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