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How to Help Someone With Mental Illness

With the holidays upon us, families dealing with mental illness or addiction face special challenges. Often, as friends and loved ones, we want to help, but we don’t know how.

Mental illness isn’t like cancer or surgery. Do you bring over a casserole or a pan of brownies because your neighbor’s husband is an alcoholic? Is that expression of support even appropriate? How do you gauge if your family member wants to discuss his bipolar son’s condition? Mental illness, cloaked in stigma and fear and secrecy, is often a landmine to navigate. What is the right thing to say? How does one reach out to a suffering family without driving them away? Are certain questions too probing?

Admittedly, it’s hard to talk about these things. We accept the breakdown and infirmity of the body, but reject the breakdown and infirmity of the mind. Rather than meals and calls and offers of support or transportation, the mental breakdowns invite only isolation. Where are all the friends, neighbors, fellow churchgoers and relatives?

It’s a curious phenomenon, but understanding the reasons behind it helps us to make an intentional decision to act differently. First is the issue of fault. Much of the shame and stigma of mental illness and addiction is based upon the incorrect, but widely held, belief that the victim or sufferer has something to do with it all. If we reach out to support the family of the alcoholic, are we somehow condoning the alcoholism? A lack of understanding and education about mental illness is another culprit. Is the chronically depressed individual just being dramatic and melancholy? Can’t he or she start to look on the bright side? How do we serve people we believe might be somewhat to blame for their condition?

People also mistake those who suffer with mental illness as crazy or irrational. While mental illness can affect cognitive and rational capabilities, this is certainly not the case across the board. Those with mental illness and their families need friends and social connections as much as anyone else. There is also the fear that getting too close to mental illness will bring it upon oneself, as if someone else’s depression or alcoholism is going to rub off. This is irrational and not a reason to disengage from those who struggle with mental illness or their families. It also demonstrates that there is still great need for education and awareness around the realities of mental illness.

A lack of response can come from simply not knowing how to respond appropriately to conditions that are little understood. There is a well-developed standard for helping people during illness or injury, but with mental illness, there seems to be no set of accepted best practices. Isolation is often a part of the disease, making those who are suffering hard to reach. Not wanting to say the wrong thing or create a potentially awkward situation, many of us opt to stay away altogether.

What You Can Do

Let the family or the individual tell you what is helpful. Think of how often you have said to someone who underwent surgery or suffered an illness, “let me know if there is anything I can do.” This is no different. The wife of an addict or the parent of a child who has been admitted to a psych unit for attempted suicide has needs, too. Try some variation of this: “I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for your family. I would like to offer help in a tangible way. Could I make a meal or watch your other children for an afternoon? Or perhaps there is something else you can think of that your family needs right now? Please let me know how I can be helpful at this time.”

Or just bring a meal over with a card that says “Thinking of you.” You don’t need permission to reach out to a friend or neighbor. Perform acts of kindness and service and be willing to talk or engage if the individual so chooses or is able to do so. Keep expectations low, but continue to extend friendship and service as you are able.

Don’t pry. It’s easier to talk about one’s recent knee replacement surgery than a non-fatal drug overdose or a wife who is in treatment. If you have personal experience with addiction or mental illness—either yourself or family member—it might be helpful to share it. When we confess our own imperfections and struggles with candor, we invite others to unload their burdens.

Be an advocate. Is your sister suffering from depression? Consider how you can be an advocate for increased awareness around depression. The more the general public learns the true nature of these illnesses, the better equipped we will all be to recognize mental illness and then to reach out and help those we know are suffering.

There is still hope.

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