Most often than not, as hard as it is to accept that our loved one is suffering from mental health issues, lack of an understanding and knowledge about how to help renders one feeling helpless and frustrated. While working with individuals I come across family members who are often baffled as they struggle to find responses and behaviors that are appropriate and helpful. 'No matter what I do or say, he/she still feels that I don't understand. Should I be doing something differently?' they ask. Well, here are a few ways in which one can support a loved one as they battle with their difficulties.
- a. Initiate a conversation:
In most cases it happens that the person who is suffering from any mental health issue is unlikely to come and talk about it explicitly. 'It's so difficult for me to explain and even if I did, will anyone understand what I am going through?' is a common fear that holds them back from opening up to anyone. The responsibility then falls on us to reach out and hold an open conversation with them. It can be as simple as stating the things that you have been noticing around this person, in a non judgmental fashion and expressing concern around the same. This may sound something like this:
'For the past few days I have been noticing that you are little stressed and lost in your own thoughts. Lately you have also been keeping much to yourself. This worries me a little. I am genuinely concerned about you. Is there anything that is bothering you? Would you like to talk about what’s going on?'
Remember, that even after this, the person might find it hard to talk and would want to take some time before verbalizing his concerns. This is completely alright and acceptable. The idea is to open a door of conversation for them and letting them walk through it at their own pace. Saying 'It's alright if you don't want to talk about it right away. Whenever you are ready, just know that I am here for you', helps the person feel accepted, welcomed and not pressurized into sharing what he finds difficult to express.
- b. Joining in the experience:
Imagine if an otherwise cheerful, lively and ambitious person comes and tells you that he has been feeling sad and hopeless for past few days, what would your first reaction be? I have seen people being perplexed by such revelations and most often questioning- "What’s wrong with you? What’s there for you to be depressed?"
It is alright for anyone to feel surprised about what their dear one is experiencing but it is important to remember that your loved one needs more of your support than judgment during this phase of his life. Saying 'it's no reason for you to be anxious' or 'how can you be upset about this, it's no biggie' or 'you know people have it worst' isn't going to help. Rather all it does is make the person feel not understood and invalidated.
Instead join them in their experiences. Remember that you may not agree with their reasons for being sad, anxious, worried or stressed but that does not mean that their feeling, pain or suffering isn't real. Recognize that like you may be having your own reasons, both rational and irrational, for feeling a particular way in a particular situation, this person can also feel things in his own unique way.
It is then important that you not only realize this but also extend support and acceptance by verbally acknowledging their pain. Accept and help them also accept that it's ok to feel they way that they are feeling, because emotions aren't right or wrong. Let them know that you understand how hard it might be for them; that you are there for them and that they don't have to go through it alone.
- c. Look beyond the labels:
Caregivers often tend to attribute the signs and symptoms of mental health disorders as faulty ways of being or as problem behaviors that the person chooses to engage in. 'He is just LAZY you know' or 'she's just being CRANKY. She does this all the time' is unfortunately what I sometimes hear them saying.
It is very easy to confuse between symptoms and undesirable behaviors, for example feeling amotivated can look like being ambitionless. What’s important here is to look beyond these tags or labels and acknowledge that these may be signs that one needs to attend to.
It is important that you recognize that a particular behavior can be something much more than what it just seems to be superficially. Communicating about the same with the person is very essential. Expressing something like "you know what; you were not always like this. You were enthusiastic, always active. This is just because you are going through something difficult right now. I know that this is not you", helps the person separate himself from the disorder and reminds you both that it's not the person who is the 'problem' but the condition that needs to be addressed.
- d. Holding compassion:
When the person, suffering, is sharing his concerns and difficulties, rather than attempting to fix their problems, all you need to do at times is to simply listen and respond to them with compassion. When they tell you how they feel, saying something like- 'I am sorry that you feel this way but I am really glad that you opened up to me. What can I do for you? How can I help?', conveys that you care for the person and are willing to be there for him the way he would want you to be. It encourages the person to talk openly and share his vulnerability without having the fear of being judged or being misunderstood.
Remember that sometimes merely listening is also helping. Not every time does your dear one need you to solve problems, fix things or give advices. Sometimes all that's required is to have someone who holds a space for them to express all that he is feeling and that in itself is enough for the person to feel good. At times it is even completely alright to just sit quietly whenever appropriate or to acknowledge that one is short of words (saying- "I don't know what to say"). Your presence and willingness to be with the person is what actually matters.
- e. Acknowledge the positives:
One needs to subtly remind their loved one of all the positive aspects, big or small, that are still present in his life. With all the struggles that he is facing, your loved one is likely to overlook all that’s going well for him.
This doesn’t mean simply pointing out at materialistic things that they have but instead it means to bring their attention to the capabilities they have and reminding them of their strengths. Helping them find the strength to face this challenging situation can be achieved through simple encouraging statements like 'Even though it seems difficult right now, I know you have the strength in you to fight this'. It helps in sending across a message that you want to help them believe in themselves without minimizing their problems at the same time.
- f. Educate yourself:
Not knowing what is going or what to expect can be a major source of anxiety and stress for family members and friends. The uncertainty of how things are going to turn and the added stigma around mental health concerns that the society holds, caregivers often feel overwhelmed.
Learning about what your loved one is going through and gaining more information about it will aid in coping better with your own feelings of uncertainty and to help your loved one effectively. For example if your partner is suffering with depression, then familiarizing yourself with the condition will help you in knowing how to respond to the behaviors that he is having. Moreover, it will equip you with the knowledge of what to expect or not to expect from this person as a result of the condition he is suffering from. This will also aid in identifying the need and appropriate source for professional help.
Lastly, you also need to remember that along with taking care of your loved ones, you also need to take care of your own mental and physical health. One might feel overburdened with this responsibility of taking care of their dear one and as a result might soon experience feelings of anger or hostility towards them. Hence it is important to be able to take care of yourselves while caring for others.