How to help someone struggling with their mental health

Alyssa Shepherd gives some excellent advice on how to support a loved one with mental health issues. She draws on her personal experiences and what she found helpful, comforting and supportive whilst on her journey to mental harmony.

With one in every four people suffering from mental illness throughout the United Kingdom, the chances that we know at least one person in our life who is struggling to manage with their mental health is reasonably high. Whether it be a friend, a partner, or family member who is struggling, your support and encouragement can play a significant role in helping them either to handle their illness, or start their recovery. Speaking from personal experience, support structures are extremely important in helping to overcome negative thoughts, to stay hopeful and to regain energy, optimism and enjoyment in life.

When my thoughts reached a very dark and difficult place, I knew that I still always had the love and listening ear of a very special friend who would drive to take me for ice cream, and lovely family to talk me through what I was feeling. With the crippling stigma that is still associated with the topic of mental health, often people do find it difficult to be that support structure for their close ones, simply because they don’t understand the intricacies of their illness, don’t wish to give bad advice, and feel that they can’t relate. These obstacles to being that all-important shoulder-to-cry-on, however, can be overcome with a little bit of advice on etiquette and bravery.

It is useful to start, firstly, by learning about the specific mental illness that that loved one is struggling to deal with. Reading and becoming educated about the symptoms and causes of that illness can help you to familiarize yourself with the issue, and gain a deeper understanding about what your loved one is experiencing, and why exactly they are feeling that way. It is further important to become educated about mental health issues in general in order to understand that common illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, are serious conditions.

If you have never struggled with mental health, it can sometimes be difficult to envision what that may entail. It is important not to blame your friend or loved one for the way that they are feeling and the thoughts they are having. Many people think they are being supportive when they advise a friend or loved one simply just to ‘snap out of it’ or that ‘everyone feels like this sometimes’, when in actuality, this trivialisation could make that person feel misunderstood, at a time when they are being very critical and harsh toward themselves already.

Being a compassionate listener, more than anything else, is one of the best things you can be for your friend or loved one. Often times, the simple act of talking to someone and giving them the time of day to express and talk through their thoughts, feelings and issues can be an enormous help to someone. There is no pressure for you to try to solve the issues for that person, simply being willing to listen – without judgment – is critical to preventing them from feeling so isolated. You can also help your friend or loved one by encouraging them to seek help for their mental health. Part of the reason I began my course of treatment was because my parents encouraged me and made me feel supported in my decision to reach out for help. I even had a friend help me research via FaceTime in order to find out what support services there were on offer at my university. As someone who was depressed and already feeling low on energy, it was a huge help to have assistance in looking into such options, and it really made me feel that someone out there cared about my wellbeing.

When someone you know is struggling, you may often feel like you should take care of every single thing for him or her. Although it might be useful and nice to help them to do things, it is also helpful to encourage them to do things for themselves. Gentle encouragement to help them to help themselves by staying physically active, eating well and participating in activities they get enjoyment and satisfaction out of, is also extremely useful.

Finally – be brave. Sometimes we don’t believe that we should be the ones to try to help our friends or loved ones who are suffering, because we believe that we are neither qualified nor close enough to them to be able to provide the right advice. Yet, so long as we are compassionate, non-judgmental, and we remind the person suffering that they are loved and that there are resources available to help them to recover, we are taking steps in the right direction to help that someone who is struggling.