Mental health concerns are common.
Though mental health concerns are common, it can be difficult to watch a loved one struggling with these issues. Whether it’s depression or anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or another of the many mental health issues that can affect someone’s life, looking out for a loved one who’s experiencing this kind of challenge requires some finesse and a lot of patience.
Here, several mental health professionals offer their tips for how best to support a friend or loved one who’s struggling with any kind of mental health issue.
1. Start a conversation.
David Bond, director of behavioral health for Blue Shield of California, says a good place to start is by opening up a conversation. “It can feel uncomfortable bringing up issues surrounding mental health, but showing an interest in a discussion is the first step in creating a safe space for those who might be struggling.”
When a friend or loved one is struggling with a mental health issue, it can be difficult to resist the temptation to “give advice, reassure or preach,” says Nicole Siegfried, a licensed clinical psychologist, certified eating disorder specialist and chief clinical officer at Lightfully Behavioral Health based in Thousand Oaks, California.
“At the core of most mental health disorders is feelings of disconnection and lack of belonging. When met with listening rather than lecturing, individuals with mental health disorders are more likely to feel understood and seen, which opens the door to them receiving more help.”
While listening, be sure to avoid the impulse to fix things, says Nick Allen, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oregon and co-founder of Ksana Health, a behavioral health company that uses technology to provide personalized insights and interventions to improve mental health care.
“Listen to their experience and don’t make the conversation about you,” he explains. Listening to someone speak about their experience “can be very challenging because the listener often feels uncomfortable and feels the need to fix the situation quickly. However, this can make the person sharing their experience feel worse.”
The next step after listening is validating your loved one’s concerns. “Validation does not mean that you approve or agree,” Siegfried notes. Instead, “it means that you understand or want to understand and that you’re trying to see things through the lens of the other person. You may not completely understand their experience, but as humans, we all understand suffering, so we can try to put ourselves in another person’s shoes to understand their pain.”
Allen notes that it’s common for the listener to respond with “toxic positivity,” which is when the listener “does not acknowledge the speaker’s experience and dismisses the situation by being seemingly positive on the surface.” Moving directly into problem-solving before the person has had a chance to describe their experience can be invalidating.
Instead, listen fully and don’t minimize what the person is feeling or expressing in a judgment-free way, says Tyish Hall Brown, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C. “It’s important for your loved one to feel safe so that they may be open to talking to you honestly about the mental health challenges they currently face.”
When someone is grappling with a mental health disorder, it’s often difficult for them to “muster the strength and bandwidth to do what needs to be done to begin the recovery process,” Siegfried says. “Providing help in tangible ways makes a difference.”
You can offer that support by focusing on concrete and specific tasks. “Sometimes asking ‘what can I do to help?’ isn’t enough,” as it places the burden back on the person with the condition to tell you what they need. “In some cases it’s better just to provide support without waiting for an invitation,” Siegfried says, adding that setting up an outing, bringing over a meal or inviting the person to the movies can all be good starting points to extend needed support.
5. Avoid labeling.
Frank Borunda, a licensed behavioral health clinician with L.A. Care Health Plan, says you should “avoid labeling individuals with ‘you’re depressed‘ or ‘you’re anxious,’ and choose to use language such as, ‘it seems like you’ve been distracted lately, would you like to talk about it?’ Help them explore their current support and coping systems, and then offer them therapy resources, phrasing it in a way where they can make the decision to seek therapy and have a safe, nonjudgmental space.”
He adds that you should also avoid using certain colloquial phrases such as insane, crazy and unstable. “Despite these being incorporated in our everyday language, it can make someone feel ashamed of sharing any experienced mental health issues.”
6. Be patient.
Mental health issues can take a long time to resolve, and it may also take your loved one a while to accept professional help when needed. But Allen says you need to avoid pushing them before they’re comfortable moving forward. “Pushing people to seek help before they’re ready is not helpful because it can often create resistance to seeking help. In most cases, for the situation to progress positively the individual must feel ready to receive care.”
Even after someone is receiving care, challenges may remain, Hall Brown notes. “There may not be a quick fix for a loved one diagnosed with a mental health condition. You need to be prepared to potentially support your loved one for an extended period of time, and possibly over the course of their lifetime. That support may look different as they transition out of a crisis and into daily maintenance, but nonetheless, prepare to support them for as long as they may need you.”
7. Don’t crowd them.
Hall Brown notes that it’s important to find the right rhythm for supporting your loved one in a way that works for them without them feeling smothered. You might want to check in daily if they’re in crisis, or less often when symptoms ease.
“During these conversations you don’t necessarily have to talk about their mental health issues. Often discussing everyday things is a welcome distraction from the narrative that may be replaying in their minds. Reminiscing about old times, ‘spilling the tea’ about recent events within your social circles and sharing humorous quotes, memes or videos can brighten their day.”
Bond adds that because “mental health issues will never be resolved overnight,” having regular check-ins is important. “Make it a habit and keep the dialogue going.”
8. Strategize finding support.
Borunda says helping your loved one strategize a plan for how to access care can be a big support. “Someone’s mental health journey can be intimidating at first. If someone is reluctant, assist them with finding local county resources and numbers for mental health or local substance abuse support teams.”
He also recommends starting small and building gradually if your loved one is resistant to seeking care. Encourage them to reach out to their primary care provider, as often people are more willing to accept support from a provider they already have a relationship with rather than reaching out to someone they don’t know.
“Normalize the fact that many people seek professional help and that by seeking professional help the person is not ‘weak’ or ‘broken,'” Hall Brown says. “Let them know that they can always stop if they don’t find it helpful, but at least give it a try because what they’re going through is more than what they might be able to handle on their own in the moment.”
9. Watch what you say.
Siegfried notes there are a few things you should avoid saying to someone struggling with a mental health issue. Watch out for the following statements:
— “If you were more positive, you wouldn’t feel like this.” This blames the person who’s struggling for how they feel.
— “Don’t tell anyone because they will see you in a different light.” This is highly stigmatizing.
— “This will pass with time.” Not every mental health issue is a short-term experience, and statements like these can offer false hope.
— “Pray more and that will fix it.” Although spirituality and religion can provide support for individuals with mental health disorders, the same way it might for someone with physical or medical problems, it’s not always a substitute for professional help.
Allen adds that because there’s a “stigma around mental health, particularly the belief that mental health problems are different from other types of health conditions,” you need to be careful not to discourage someone from asking for support. “When a person is opening up about their mental health concerns, experiencing rejection can be one of the worst outcomes some can experience. People experiencing mental health problems need consistent and steady social support.”
Bond notes that you should resist the urge to compare your loved one’s pain to others. “When we do that, we end up making those that we care about so much feel like their emotions and experiences don’t matter.”
10. Find support for yourself.
“Taking care of others requires taking care of yourself,” Borunda says. You can’t be effective in caring for someone else if you let your own health and well-being fall by the wayside. Instead, make time to do the things you need to stay healthy. Reduce stress, eat right, get enough sleep and look after your own mental well-being.
Siegfried notes that often, caregivers need to seek “their own mental health support while navigating the challenges of supporting someone with a mental illness.” With that, Hall Brown adds that “mental health conditions are not contagious. Just because you’re supporting someone with a mental illness does not mean that you or anyone else will develop a similar condition.”
And Bond adds, “like on an airplane where you’re asked to put your oxygen mask on first before helping those around you, we cannot suppress our own mental health needs for those of others.”
The added bonus of taking care of yourself is that you’ll also be modeling “healthy coping mechanisms for your loved one,” he says. “Show them how you’re prioritizing mental well-being so they feel comfortable doing the same.”
11. Know that mental health issues are treatable.
Lastly, Hall Brown notes that “mental health conditions are treatable. Many people with mental health conditions live long, successful, productive lives despite the added challenges that a mental health condition may bring.”
11 tips to support someone struggling with mental health:
— Start a conversation.
— Avoid labeling.
— Be patient.
— Don’t crowd them.
— Strategize finding support.
— Watch what you say.
— Find support for yourself.
— Know that mental health issues are treatable.
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11 Tips to Support Someone Struggling with Mental Health originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 06/16/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.