Supporting Your Loved Ones Through Mental Illness.
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its 17 month and lockdown continues, I wanted to use this moment to talk about shifting our focus to community care and reaching out to our friends or family, who may be struggling in silence during their extended period of social isolation.
Mental illness amongst your friends and family is a very sensitive subject and comes with a lot of grey areas. Your first instinct may be to help your loved one but you can potentially misunderstand or say the wrong thing. That's okay. It would be far more damaging to say and do nothing at all than to make a few missteps along the way.
I'd like to offer some do’s and don’ts when helping out a loved one suffering from depression
Learn more about their illness
If they have a confirmed diagnosis from seeing a professional, read up on the condition first. Don’t think that just because you have heard of it that you know it well. You may be surprised by a lot of things when you do your research. Doing this will give you better insight into your friend’s struggles.
Offer to help with chores
Care can look like offering to do their dishes or laundry, babysitting, or cooking for them on a day where they do not have the energy for these basic tasks. Never let them feel embarrassed about needing a little help.
If they confide in you about their struggles, make an active effort to listen to what they are saying and validate their feelings. Statements like “that sounds like it was really hard” help you acknowledge their emotions and express empathy.
Check-in on scheduled days
It can be hard for people with depression to reach out to a friend when they are going through the worst of it. Most suffer in isolation and instinctively withdraw or fear alienating their loved ones. If they’ve been silent for a while, drop a text or call to check-in.
Donate to mental health organizations
Sadly not everyone has access to therapy, as it can be very expensive. If you have the means, donate to organizations that offer free or affordable counselling or other mental health resources.
Give unsolicited advice
You probably mean well, but telling your friend if they’ve tried praying, exercising, or going on a special diet can unintentionally make them feel worse. It can imply that they are not trying hard enough, and if they only put in the effort (or became more religious), they wouldn’t be depressed. Only offer tips and suggestions if they ask for it!
Disclose things without permission
If your friend has talked to you about their diagnosis or admitted to self-harming, do not assume you have permission to tell others. It takes a lot of trust and courage for someone to admit these things in spite of the stigma. Honor your friend’s boundaries and don’t spread this info without their explicit permission, unless you think that the situation is life-threatening.
Don’t assume that because you have a similar anecdote that you know exactly how your friend feels. It is natural for us to want to relate to our friends, but keep them the center of attention when they are confiding in you.
Forget to draw boundaries
Your depressed friend does not need you to sacrifice your own wellbeing out of pity. If you are upset with them or not able to give your energy, gently but firmly set boundaries. Suggest a later time for when you can talk or meet. This lets them know you’re not afraid to say no and gives you time to recharge as well.
Add to the stigma
Our language matters. When someone does something irrational, we might label them “crazy”. Someone might jokingly say their neat freak friend has OCD, or that their spacey friend has ADD. Or that someone acting moody is a schizo, psycho or bipolar. This kind of language adds to the misinformation around mental illness. Check yourself and others when such phrases come up. Help your loved ones by creating a world where their condition is taken seriously and they are treated with dignity.