Nearly one out of every five Americans suffers from mental illness. The current statistics mean roughly 42.5 million adults suffer. Yet, mental illness is still surrounded by a negative stigma, which prevents or even discourages people from seeking help and getting the treatment they need.
For those who don’t suffer from these illnesses, it might seem like it’s something you don’t need to worry about because it doesn’t affect you — but that couldn’t stem further from the truth. Those with mental illnesses need allies to be there for them, and can advocate for them when they can’t necessarily do so themselves. What can you do to be a better ally to those with mental illness?
Remember that they are not their illness
Sometimes their actions will be ugly, especially during an argument or in the heat of a negative moment. But this person you love, a daughter, sister, brother, friend, crush, or significant other, is just that: you’re loved one. They are not their actions produced by their struggle within.
When they hurt you, don’t retaliate
There will come a time that their mental illness –whether it’s bipolar disorder, depression, attention deficit disorder, social anxiety, or obsessive compulsive disorder, will manifest itself in their treatment of you. They will hurt you, sometimes indirectly through their suffering, or directly by lashing out at you on purpose. Once you’ve made the decision to love them, you shouldn’t say the next hurtful sentence you can think of out loud.
Be someone they can confide in
The key here is support. One of the best things you can do for your friends or family members with mental illness is to be a shoulder to cry on, a shoulder to lean on when they’re having trouble, or an ear to listen when they’re having problems. Living with a mental health disorder is difficult even on the best of days, and sometimes you need someone to hold you up when you can’t hold yourself up. Don’t be controlling or demeaning. Just be there when they need help.
Take them seriously
When they are expressing their emotions, thoughts, ideas, and most importantly their convictions, take it for the beauty that it is worth. There will be constant reminders for them that their beliefs aren’t valuable due to their mental illness. Show your love by helping confirm that isn’t true.
Keep your expectations in check
Mental illness isn’t a physical illness — it may present physical symptoms, but unlike things like cancer or diabetes, you can’t see the illness itself. Someone with mental illness might have really good days where they don’t feel or act sick at all. They may go for weeks or months without symptoms, and then suddenly have their symptoms resurge — a relapse. The treatment of mental illness isn’t an exact science, and it’s important to maintain realistic expectations.
Don’t assume that a few good weeks mean they’ve been cured. Mental illness is a lifelong battle for most people, and they will still need you to be their ally if their symptoms recur or their treatment suddenly becomes ineffective.
Don’t try to heal them
You might think that you can, especially if you are a spouse or significant other. saying “I love you” is not enough. No matter how many times a day you tell them you love them, their underlying pain and subsequent illness will not subside. In trying to heal them, you lose sight of the power of their illness and how best to help them receive therapy or treatment. Even with medication, therapy, or various other treatments, they are not being healed or cured. Think of their illness as a physical ailment, such as a broken limb, and their treatment as a cast. The cast will bring the limb back to a functionality that was limited by the physical ailment. But the bone will never be the way it was prior to being broken.
The biggest problem individuals with mental illness often face isn’t the illness itself — it’s the lack of knowledge. People are inherently afraid of that which they don’t understand, which can make them unsure of how to approach people with mental illnesses. The first step you should take is to educate yourself and those around you about the different types of mental illnesses. Learn everything you can. It helps to cut through that fear of the unknown and allows you to be an active ally for those who need your help.
Love and take care of yourself first
Being an ally for those with mental illness is a fantastic thing but not if it is at the cost of your own physical or mental health. Be there to support and advocate for your friends or family members, but remember to set your own boundaries so you can take the time to care for yourself. Being an ally can be a full-time job in and of itself in some cases, so you want to make sure you’re practicing proper self-care and mindfulness. If you’re not helping yourself, you won’t be healthy enough to do good for anyone else either. Deciding to stay in the life of someone with an unseen disease will pose some sacrifices, for sure. But before you decide to actively love the individual, you need to take care of yourself first. When you are healthy and well, you can help others that much more. When you are healthy and well, the weight of their sickness won’t bury you.