Healthy Mind

How to support family and friends with mental health issues

Too many of us have been there- trying to support a family member or a friend who is experiencing mental health issues. It is not an easy task, and in an ideal world, no one would have to go through something so tough.
It is absolutely heart breaking to see people we love feel so anxious, depressed or out of control. As a person who has tried my best to support people I know who have a variety of mental health issues (ranging from OCD, eating disorders, to borderline personality disorder), I hope to try and give those caring for or supporting their friends or family some solid advice stemming from my own experiences.
Just to clarify: this isn’t an article about just having a cup of tea and talking about your problems with your friends. Anyone who has actually experienced serious mental illness, either themselves or has a friend, parent or sibling living with it, knows that just talking about it will not solve the problem. Talking about it helps you to stop getting to that dark place- but it isn’t a cure. Only real work into getting better, and possibly proper therapy with a qualified medical professional and drugs, can help.
Bear in mind: this article is based off my experiences, and since mental health is such an individual thing, you may disagree with me, and that’s fine. Do what works for you.
1. Know what you’re dealing with: If the person you are worried about has not been diagnosed with a mental illness and is clearly showing signs or symptoms of one, try to get their family members, or if you are a family member, to get them a diagnosis. There is a procedure for mental health assessment in most hospitals with a psychiatric unit, and they should give the person a treatment plan. Sometimes you have to fight for a diagnosis, and this can be draining and tiring for family and friends who are doing everything they can for the person. But you will find help- it just takes longer than it should in Ireland. The problem with the system is that more people are looking for help, but finding the right help is tricky and requires perseverance. In my experience, mental health services are better in Dublin (as are most medical services), so if you are dealing with a rare and tricky illness, you may have to find a specialist. Don’t give up.
2. Know when it’s time to step back: This is perhaps the hardest thing I have had to learn while supporting friends and family who have mental health issues. There is only so much you can do for your friend. You cannot cure them, you cannot diagnose them, you cannot be their therapist. I believe there is a serious problem with this encouragement of “talk to your friends about your mental health”, which is dangerous when it comes to serious mental illnesses. How about improving mental health services instead of placing the burden on friends and family to counsel people? Try your best to convince your friend or family member to go to therapy voluntarily, or explain to them that meds can work. If they won’t listen to you, and they are continually putting themselves in harm’s way, there is nothing more you can do. Your friend’s actions are beyond your control and you cannot be their watchdog 24/7. You have gone above and beyond the line of duty as a friend and need to be able to recognise when more help is needed. 
3. Look after your own mental health: If a friend or sibling is suffering, you are suffering too. The anxiety I experienced when I was worrying about others was all-consuming: are they still alive? Will they ever be able to go out and eat in a restaurant again? The most important person in your life is you and you alone. You have to look after your own mind; do not let yourself become so intertwined in the other person’s life where you feel like you are solely responsible for keeping them alive. This is incredibly damaging to your own mental health- the pressure is just too much. Do not be afraid to seek counselling for yourself; you can be experiencing trauma while looking after your friend. Don’t think just because you do not have a mental illness, or don’t have it as bad as your friend, that you don’t need help too.
4. Try not to blame your friend or family member: At the start of supporting someone who has mental health issues, we tend to be more understanding. As time goes on it can feel like you are losing you own personal life, especially in family situations, where every aspect of your life at home is tinged with the illness. Many people feel angry at the person; they want them to “cop on”. Sadly, there is no quick fix for our mental health. The ideal situation is that the person is getting therapy and has developed healthy coping mechanisms and you can then support them when they need you, but the burden of care is not being placed solely on you. And it really has to get a lot worse before it can get better.
Disclaimer: these are only my subjective opinions on how to support friends and family members with mental health problems; they aren’t applicable in all situations.
If you have been affected by the contents of this article, Samaritans can be called 24/7 on: 116 123 (this number is free to call and you don’t have to be suicidal to call Samaritans).