Love, Support, Advocate: Relationships & Mental Health
Whoever you are, I'm willing to bet that you love someone experiencing mental health struggles. Maybe a parent, a friend, a partner, or even yourself (and I do hope you love yourself with the same kindness and loyalty you want from and give to others).
Mental illness is common. So common, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, that 1 in 5 American adults experiences mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 25 American adults lives with a serious mental illness. As our understanding of the brain increases, so does our understanding of the many complex conditions we file under “mental illness”. Regardless of the depth of our medical understanding, it is important is for us to know how to support those who live with mental health diagnoses. I approach this topic as someone who lives with mild depression and anxiety and deeply loves several people who live with a variety of mental health diagnoses. I humbly acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We are complex human beings with nuanced needs and emotions. With this is mind, here are seven tips I think will help us love others—and ourselves—in a way that empowers us all to live the big, beautiful lives we deserve.
1. Listen more than you speak.
Listen to your loved one. Listen with the intent to understand how they're feeling. Those parts you cannot understand, validate and accept them anyway. Each person's experience is limited at best and our experiences and opinions have no place when it comes to another's diagnosis. Mental health diagnoses are not moral failings; they are medical events that can be researched and examined. While you may have well-meaning suggestions, it is important to remember that everyone experiences mental health diagnoses differently. Your opinions can often do more harm than good.
2. Don't try to "fix".
A person living with mental health diagnoses does not need to be fixed. Like anyone else, they need to be loved, supported, and treated with respect. Any attempt to try to manage their emotions and reactions only causes more suffering. When you try to fix someone—mental illness or no—you automatically lose your status as a “safe place” and create unnecessary conflict. If you want your loved one to feel safe with you, to have the freedom to truly be themselves, you must give them the space to feel whatever they're feeling without judgment.
3. Ask: What can I do to help you?
It's the privilege of those of us who love a person living with a mental health diagnosis to support them in ways that are healthy and empowering. We get to be the people who stand by them when they are in need. This support takes many forms—going with them to medical appointments, working with them to make sure their home is safe and comfortable, helping them orchestrate their schedule in a way that allows them to take care of themselves. Ask what they need and show up for them. It's as simple as that.
4. Your loved one is not their mental illness.
We often say that a person is more than their diagnosis, that they aren't defined by it. This is true—and easy to say. The key is learning how to demonstrate this in our relationships and respond to our loved ones in a way that reflects this truth. Help them focus on their strengths when they are unable to do so on their own. Be a new set of eyes for them to see themselves and the world with a new perspective. Remind them of their value and all the incredible things they bring to the people around them. We all need to be reminded these things—daily, if possible!
5. Don't make it about you.
Mental health diagnoses often make relationships difficult. There's a lot of conflict, fear, and hurt that can occur while two people navigate new landscapes together. Don't make their experiences about you. When they are feeling depressed or anxious or working through an episode, go back to #3 and ask what you can do to help them. If there isn't anything you can do, move ahead to #6 and find a way to tend to your own well-being. Gently remove yourself from the situation if it escalates.
6. Take care of yourself.
This is true for anyone in any relationship: you must take care of yourself. Oftentimes we can be tempted to blame all hardship or dysfunction on the people around us when some of our problems actually lie within. Go to therapy, make time for yourself, take care of your body and mind, join a support group—do whatever you need to do to be healthy and happy. The burden for your happiness and fulfillment rests on your shoulders alone. It is only when you are taking care of yourself that you'll be able to offer support to your loved ones.
7. Be an advocate.
People who are living with mental health diagnoses shouldn't have to stand alone. This is where advocacy comes in. At times, being an advocate may mean negotiating with insurance companies and healthcare providers. Other times, it may mean teaching friends and family how to have compassion for and talk about your loved one's diagnosis with respect and understanding. Many people choose to show their support through walks and fundraisers, like NAMIWalks. Something as small as sharing a positive, informational article about mental health on social media can be a form of advocacy.
Mental health diagnoses look and feel different for everyone. Regardless of what we're dealing with, the most important thing we can do is be kind and compassionate toward one another. Keep loving, keep supporting, keep advocating—for others and for yourself. We need each other.