November can be a difficult month for many reasons; the daylight seems scarce and the stresses from school and other obligations may be bubbling to the surface as the year comes to a close. This rainy season can be especially hard for those who already struggle with their mental health. Given that approximately one in four people will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, we likely all know someone who could use a helping hand. However, sometimes it is hard to know how to effectively offer support. For this reason, I have compiled a list of support tips to help you give effective and compassionate support to someone in need. This will be the first of two installments. This post covers some baseline tips and next month I will discuss some specific dos and don’ts. Please keep in mind that I am not a counsellor by any means, but these are some tips that have worked for me
1. Take care of yourself
This one is arguably the most important. If you are close to someone with a mental illness, you may want to do everything you can for that person. Keep in mind that you have the right to take care of yourself first. Therapist and author, Susan Forward, coined the acronym F.O.G. It stands for fear, obligation and guilt. When supporting others, you deserve to live without F.O.G. If you are offering support to someone over a long period of time, you may want to set boundaries to clearly define your role and scope. Healthy boundaries are beneficial for you and the person receiving your support. You can start by nicely explaining “I am glad that you feel comfortable coming to me for support and I want to help as much as I can. Unfortunately, I can’t be available 24/7. Sometimes I need time to take care of myself and focus on school.” This sets the tone for a healthy dynamic and will allow you to take time for yourself. Keep in mind that setting boundaries is not a onetime event. Much like giving support, setting and reinforcing boundaries is a process unto itself.
If you are supporting a long-term partner or family member, it can also be helpful to seek counselling for yourself. Professional support can help you navigate between being an individual and being a support-giver.
2. Know when to refer
This is critical. Peers, significant others and family members can play large roles in supporting each other’s mental health. Nonetheless, offering support beyond your scope can be dangerous for two reasons: it can be exhausting for you and can be dangerous for the person in need. If someone you know is showing consistent signs of distress, it is important to encourage that person to seek professional help. While making this suggestion, try to express your concern in a non-judgemental manner. This can be a sensitive topic for many, so be prepared for various reactions. The person in need may initially be offended, confused or angry at the suggestion of professional help. No matter how they react, please try to maintain patience and compassion. If you are able and have the time, offer to help the person investigate local resources. Seeking professional help can be a daunting task. Having a supportive friend can help to alleviate some of this stress. UVic Counselling Services is a good place to start if the person in need is a UVic student.
3. Get informed
If a good friend or loved one has been diagnosed with a mental illness and has informed you of their diagnosis, then it can be helpful to read up on the condition. This will allow you to gain insight on their feelings, behaviours and/or needs. While doing your research, keep in mind that everyone’s experience with mental illness is different. Just because you read it in a peer-reviewed article, does not mean that it necessarily applies to your friend/loved one. Nonetheless, gaining knowledge and understanding is never a bad thing. You may find valuable tips tailored to their specific condition.
4. Find acceptance
There are two forms of acceptance worth mentioning. I call them “micro-acceptance” and “macro-acceptance”. Micro-acceptance involves offering validation in the moment. For example, if a friend or loved one struggles with depression and is having a particularly rough day, it is not productive to ask them to simply “cheer up”. Instead, try to accept them in their current state. Avoid looking for a quick fix to change their mood; if there was a quick fix, they probably would have applied it by now.
Macro-acceptance involves accepting someone’s condition in the long run. This is especially pertinent to those who have a family member or long-term romantic partner who consistently struggles with their mental health. Some mental conditions are here to stay. For people who do not have a mental illness, it can be second nature to view “normalcy” as the goal. You might find yourself saying “Let’s do some research to find a cure” or “I know you will get better”. Although the intent is good, this can be a hurtful attitude for people who have a chronic condition. Sometimes it is more meaningful to accept that the person has a mental illness and remind them that the illness is just one aspect of who they are. A cure is not the only route to a brighter future.
Mental illnesses come in many shapes and sizes. There are many ways in which you can support someone with a mental illness. Above all else, it is important to recognize that it is not up to you to “fix” the person. These tips are some general guidelines to help you understand what healthy support looks like. Next month, Part II will discuss a few specific dos and don’ts.
Stay tuned and thanks for reading!