June – How You Can Help Those with Mental Illness

June – How You Can Help Those with Mental Illness

How You Can Help Those with Mental Illness

“We cannot heal each other singlehandedly,
I’m learning that people are not medicine,
but that we can find help together;
it comes in many forms.
I’m learning that we recognize hope
best in the eyes of our friend.
So, with all that I am,
I am loyal.
I will not give up on you.
We cannot move mountains
or make you feel whole.
But we will be here for you
to teach you that
help comes in many forms
and you are not alone.”
  • To Whom it May Concern by Janelle Maree
Courtesy of Jamey M. Photography

Hey lovelies! Welcome to our next mental health discussion.

When I asked my friends and family what they wanted to hear about next, this was one of the biggest themes. How do I help those with mental illness? How can I help a loved one while they’re going through this? While it may not be the same for everyone, there are certain guidelines I can help lay out for you all that are fairly standard amongst most people suffering with mental illness. However, it may not work for those with more severe cases and psychotic symptoms.

One of the first things I would recommend to people who have friends or family with a diagnosed condition is DO YOUR RESEARCH. Go through accredited websites and read up on the illness, the symptoms, the treatment process. This is one of the first things I did when I found out about my family history of bipolar disorder. I wasn’t totally sure what bipolar disorder was and what to look for in the event that I was diagnosed myself, which later in life, I was. Knowing the symptoms of a specific disorder or illness is one of the most helpful ways to get an understanding of what this person goes through on a day to day basis. It can help you understand their struggles and sympathize with them a little easier.

Another really big thing that I have found extremely helpful is when people check in with me and are encouraging about my journey. Whether it’s a quick “how have you been holding up” text or taking me out to the book store to catch up with me and my mental state. This creates a very open communication environment and it makes me feel as though I can talk about whether I’m okay or not more freely. People suffering from mental illness sometimes have a hard time being the one to bring up how they’re doing, as we don’t like feeling like a burden to those we care about. It makes us feel like we’re being needy. So, starting the conversation and showing an interest in what is going on with us is extremely helpful. Another reason for the open communication is that this will seriously help end the stigma about mental illnesses. The more we talk about it and take an interest in it, the easier it will be to have it become the norm. It can be awkward at first to open that communication line, but it is SO IMPORTANT.

Another factor of being encouraging for your loved ones is validation. Validating how they feel and making it known that you understand it’s not something that can be switched off and that it’s something that needs to be worked at every day. Sometimes we can’t be strong. Sometimes we fall apart. And that’s okay. It is out of our control and it happens, we’re human. Letting us know that you may not fully understand what it feels like to walk in our shoes but that you understand how hard it must be for us to go through it, is one of the most helpful things you can do for a person suffering with mental illness.

Encouraging them to seek help and be on medication is important as well. There needs to be a balance between not being overbearing about it, and still being firm about them seeking the help that they need. Some of us are more reluctant to start going to therapy or taking our medication, so being encouraging and reminding us of how important it is can really help. However, do not constantly make that the topic of conversation. People like myself, need to make the decision to seek help when they are ready. It can feel like you’re being attacked if family members or friends hound you about taking care of yourself. Bringing it up in a caring and loving manner works much better and explaining that you know it needs to be done when you’re ready to make yourself a priority. Remind them that you are always there if they need someone to talk to and that when they’re ready, you’ll be there to help in any way that you can.

One of my pet peeves is our next helpful tip. STOP THROWING AROUND MENTAL ILLNESSES in regular day conversation. For example, “OMG I’m so OCD” “the weather is being bipolar” “what a schitzo”. You need to be mindful about how this effects people like myself. Calling someone bipolar because they drastically switch moods and go from 0 to 10 is one of the most insulting things to me. This shows how little people understand bipolar disorder because it is not a drastic mood change. It’s MONTHS of depression and irritability, followed by episodes of mania. Saying the word “crazy” so casually can feel very much like we’re being made fun of. The sad part of all of this, is that there is still a stigma. So, throwing around words such as crazy can make us feel belittled because some people still think people like myself or with schizophrenia or an eating disorder are “crazy”. So please please please be mindful of how your words and actions can come across to your loved ones. Be careful of the words you use and the way you speak with us. It can be very triggering.

Lastly, I asked my amazing mom if she would write a part of this blog for me so that we have the point of view of someone on the other side of mental illness – the loved ones. I have a long family history of mental health issues, especially on my mom’s side. Almost everyone on her side of the family had bipolar disorder and she has had to deal with that since she was just a child. She has had to navigate ways to help and be there for her family members and I would say she’s done an amazing job. My mom is always there for me and I love her so much for that. Read her point of view below:

“Living or caring about someone with mental illness isn’t easy.  I know, because I have lived my entire life with family members who were bipolar (formerly referred to as manic-depression).

One of my earliest childhood memories is coming home and seeing my mom being taken away in an ambulance when she overdosed on tranquilizers.  No one in the family would talk about the incident but years later, my mom confessed that she had intended to commit suicide but had a change of heart and called another family member for help.

My mother was not alone with her illness; her sister and two brothers were also bipolar, and her oldest brother committed suicide when he was only 21.  Her other siblings also attempted to commit suicide at various times during their lives.  My surviving uncle had been involuntarily committed to the psych ward on several occasions.

I remember my aunt going through a manic period where she spent hundreds of dollars on clowns. Yes….clowns.  Clown clothing hangers, clown dolls, clown figurines, clown pictures, clown salt and pepper shakers – anything and everything that depicted clowns, she bought.  It was alarming and frankly, quite creepy.

I don’t think that my mom or her remaining siblings knew they were mentally ill until much later in life.  I also am reasonably certain my grandfather was bipolar, as I observed the same behavior in him on those rare occasion that I saw him.  However, my mom told me stories about him that lead me to believe that this was the case. He would have extreme highs, followed by dark lows for extended periods.

It was something that no one talked about back in my mother’s younger years. Later on, both her and my aunt were finally diagnosed and put on medication that they had to continue to take for the duration of their lives.

In addition to my grandfather, mother, aunts and uncles on her side of the family, it has been passed down to all my cousins.  I am the only family member that has not shown any signs of depression, anxiety disorder or bipolar illness. 

Unfortunately, it is something that has been genetically passed down to my daughter.  She didn’t show any symptoms when she was younger, but it was something always in the back of my mind to watch for as she grew up.  When she was a pre-teen, I noticed she was “moody” and as a teenager, even more so, where she would sequester herself for long periods in her room. She also slept a lot.  Things got worse when her father and I split up when she was 14.  Because of puberty and the hormonal changes teens go through, they can’t be tested until adulthood because the results would not be accurate.

Being a teenager is hard enough, but add mental illness into the mix, and it is very difficult for a harmonious relationship.  I was lucky in that Cierra and I have always been very close, and I recognized that her behaviours were the result of not only the usual teenage angst, but quite possibly because she was bipolar.  It required a lot of love and patience to see her through her teenage years and it wasn’t always easy.

The most important thing that I can advise people who know someone who is mentally ill, regardless of the type of illness, is to offer your unequivocal love and support.  Let them know that their illness does not define them. Do not give up on them, ever, and be there for them.  I talked to Cierra and told her about the family history, and that she should consider getting tested, but I never pushed.  She had to make the decision herself, which she did, once she wrapped her head around it.

What is NOT helpful is to tell the person –

 “Snap out of it!”, “just decide to be happy and you will be”, “it’s all in your head (yes, it is, but not in the way you think)” or “you’ll get over it”.

They can’t just “get over it”. It is not a light switch that they can turn on and off at will.  My mom once told me it was like actually living in one of those nightmares we all experience at least once, where you are terrified and trying to run away from something but seem frozen in place. You are running and running but are not going anywhere. 

What is even less helpful, is turning your back on someone when they disclose they have a mental illness.  They are still the same person you always knew and cared about. They need to talk about it, we all need to talk about and get rid of the stigma of mental illness, so do not avoid them or the issue. 

Start the Conversation.”

That’s all for our mental health discussion this month. Please keep all these things in mind and remember, people with mental illness have a hard time reaching out due to shame and isolation. So be the one to reach out. Be the one to ask how they’re doing and if they need anything. End the stigma and help those who need it.

One Reply to “June – How You Can Help Those with Mental Illness”

  1. This is a helpful read – and being comfortable about talking is so important! Thanks to your mom for sharing, too. 🙂

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