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7 ways to support a loved one with mental illness

5 minute read
Two men talking by the ocean.

We’ve all had days when we’re feeling down, but when a loved one is struggling with mental illness, would you know what to say?

With 20% of Aussies experiencing mental illness at some point each year, we’re all likely to be affected or know someone who’s affected; and, having a support network is essential to getting through. If a loved one is struggling with their mental health, the most important thing to remember is that you need to take their condition seriously – this isn’t the time to embrace the ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

So, how do you start the conversation and how can you help? We spoke to some experts from around Australia to find out a few different ways you can support a loved one experiencing mental illness.

1. Listen

Mental health occupational therapist and founder of Waves of Wellness, Joel Pilgrim, explains that you should never underestimate the power that comes from listening.

“If someone feels they can trust you and share what they're going through, this is a testament to your relationship with them. Listen intently, ask thoughtful questions and show you've heard them by reflecting back with them.”

However, learning to really listen is a skill that can be hard to master, says Dr Addie Wooten, CEO of Smiling Mind.

“Sometimes when we think we’re listening, we’re actually just focussing on what we're going to say next or what we can do to change the situation. Deeply listening to what your loved one is saying can be the best support you can give them. Try and stay in the moment and give them your full attention.”

2. Encourage them to get professional support

It’s important to encourage your loved one to seek professional help, not only to help them with treatment options, but also to help manage any symptoms. Joel says, “Normalising the pathways to get support can make a huge difference to help-seeking. Encourage your loved one to see their GP. GPs are a great place to start as they’re often the gateway to a range of different support pathways.”

Two women hugging each other

3. Help with appointments

Clinical psychologist at the Black Dog Institute, Vijaya Manicavasagar, explains that a good way to initiate help with a close friend or relative is by offering to make their appointments for them.

“Making the first move to book in an appointment can be daunting, so many people might benefit from having the support of a loved one to help them through it.” And it doesn’t stop there. Offering to drive or accompany them on the appointment day can help with any last-minute nerves and can also deter them from cancelling.

4. Change your behaviour

It can be hard to remember, but your loved one may not be functioning the way that you’re used to them functioning and they’re probably going to require more patience and care than ever before.

“Someone experiencing a mental health condition is very good at criticising themselves and needs vital support from others, not criticism. Clear and kind communication within the household or family is also important,” says Vijaya.

It’s only natural to want to fix things for your loved one, but Dr Addie explains that a little more thought is required when offering advice.

“We all want to try and help people feel better, but sometimes the last thing people need to hear when they're feeling down is to look on the bright side. Instead try and just be there for them; don't try and fix it, just listen, support and let them know you care.”

5. Embrace the treatment process

Vijaya encourages you to try and help the treatment process. “If medication has been prescribed, help the person remember to take it and to discuss any side effects with their prescribing doctor. The person may also need encouragement and help getting to therapy appointments or doing therapy exercises.”

Some treatment options include psychotherapy which is designed to help the person change how they think and act. It’s important to understand that this process can impact relationships as the person tries to acknowledge and change past behaviours. Vijiaya explains that while this process can be difficult for everyone involved, don’t steer your loved one away from these issues.

6. Enjoy the simple life

Spending quality time together doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money; Dr Addie suggests taking time out to enjoy the simple things together.

“Savour a cup of tea or go for a walk through a garden together. Paying attention to these simple activities can provide an opportunity to pause, reset and connect.”

7. Check in

Don’t feel like you have to bring something deep and profound to every conversation you have with your loved one.

“You don't have to have all the answers; simply being there for someone you love can make all the difference. You are a shoulder to lean on, an ear to share with, and by no means does that imply you need to know what to say or have the solutions,” says Joel.

“Once you've had that first conversation, make sure you continue to check in with the person to see how they're going. It's helpful knowing you're there for them to talk again when they are ready.”

If you, or someone you know has been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, nib’s MindStep is a six-week phone-based mental health program designed to help you take control of your symptoms and maintain your recovery in the privacy of your own home. MindStep is fully funded by nib for eligible nib members and includes one-on-one coaching, practical tips and a tailored program designed to complement your GP, psychologist or psychiatrist care plan. For more information on MindStep and the other programs we offer, visit our Health Management Programs page.

All of the charities quoted are supported by nib foundation, who provide up to $2 million in funding annually to charities that work to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians across the country. Since it was established in 2008, nib foundation has granted $15.8 million in funding to more than 100 charities with the aim of helping people and communities live healthier lives.

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