By Kate Lawless
Since the pandemic began, many people have turned inward to reflect on their mental health. Loneliness and worry can affect relationships, and for some, those feelings can affect one’s day- to-day life to the extent that they need to seek help.
So how do we respond to those struggling friends and family members in a productive, loving way?
To answer this question, we had a conversation with the Vice President of Healthy Culture at Rogers Behavioral Health, Sue McKenzie Dicks, and Clinical Specialist Laura Zimmerman of Journey Mental Health. At both Journey and Rogers, staff have seen an increase in people seeking help for depression and anxiety. Here’s their advice on how we can support loved ones who are dealing with mental illness.
If you suspect someone is facing mental health challenges, you can broach the con- versation by asking to talk about changes in their behavior or attitude. Avoid judg- mental language and instead describe what you see. Have they stopped taking your calls? Do they seem overwhelmed or unable to do their normal, daily routine? McKenzie Dicks recommends saying something like, “This is what I’ve noticed, and rather than me make up a story about it in my head, can you help me understand these changes?” This allows them to ex- plain their situation without feeling like you’ve already made assumptions.
After someone shares their mental health struggles with you, they need to know that you’ll truly hear what they’re going through. Don’t interrupt or make judgments. Instead, McKenzie Dicks tells us to connect these experiences of hurt, worry or sorrow to our own experiences and let those feelings of empathy guide our listening.
And don’t assume kids can’t feel these same big feelings as adults. Zimmerman says, “Children suffer from mental health challenges, too,” and it’s important that parents don’t write off negative feelings or behaviors as something children will eventually outgrow. Listen to your children in the same way you’d listen to an adult confiding in you.
After listening to your loved one, acknowledge the strength it takes to be honest and ask for help. Demonstrating your thanks for their bravery will reassure them that you understand that this is difficult for them. Honor that trust and show you appreciate this bravery and this relationship.
MAKE A PLAN
From there, you should make a plan on how to continue your support. By doing this, you remind your loved one or friend that they are not stuck in these feelings or this experience — they can build upon their bravery and take steps to improve their mental health.
The key here is to ask what kind of support they want. Do they need some- one to check in on them every week? Or do they need to get in touch with a mental health expert? If they aren’t comfortable continuing to share how they’re feeling, Zimmerman says you can also offer to relieve some of their stress by taking on tasks to give them more time to themselves. Both Mckenzie Dicks and Zimmerman also say that you should only offer help that you know you are comfortable with, and are capable of giving. Be realistic about your availability and comfort level so that you don’t have to go back on your word.
Mckenzie Dicks says, “No one person should carry the weight of someone’s mental health alone.” For your sake, and the sake of your struggling friend or family member, asking to include another person — such as a mental health professional, friend or parent — allows you to share the weight and have a stronger support system. Ask your loved one, “I will do the best I can to support you and would love to know if there is someone else we can both turn to. Who else can we connect with?”
These are difficult conversations to have, especially with someone for whom you care deeply like a spouse or a child. Just showing up, listening and promising to be there for them can make a world of difference.
For more on living with mental illness, click here.