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The DO's and DON'Ts of Supporting Someone with Mental Illness

Updated: Apr 5, 2019

According to Mind, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem. Scary, right? Therefore at some point in their lives, your closest friends and family members could be experiencing mental ill health.


Recently, the media has raised awareness of mental health issues through #Timetotalk and #Project84 to name a couple. It’s great that people feel more open to talk about their mental health, only do we know how to respond when someone chooses to talk to us about their most private thoughts? So let’s discuss what you should and shouldn’t say to someone who is suffering, so we know how to best help and support them through it.


What you should say: It takes an awful lot for someone to open up about their deepest, most personal thoughts. A few supportive words of encouragement can mean the world to someone who is experiencing mental illness.


  • ‘How are you?’ – Said with sincerity, a simple conversation starter that could save a life. Knowing that a person cares about how you’re feeling, and genuinely wants to help, can mean a lot to someone going through depression, anxiety, etc. Even simply saying hello to a stranger, or talking about the weather on your train journey to work, can save lives – if you want to find out more about how #SmallTalkSavesLives , check out the Samaritans’ link at the bottom of the page.

  • ‘How would you like me to help?’ – Offering both emotional and practical support, anything from a reassuring hug to buying their weekly shopping can really benefit a person when they are at their worst.

  • 'If you ever want to talk, I am here for you.' – Knowing that you have someone to discuss your thoughts and emotions with, without the fear of judgement, can benefit someone living with a mental illness. If you don’t feel that you personally can help, you could let them know of support groups and helplines to turn to, such as Samaritans, Mind and CALM.

  • 'Have you considered speaking to your GP or therapist?' – GPs are trained to help people overcome mental illnesses, and so accepting their help can be beneficial in coping with and overcoming mental illness. Try to encourage them to reach out for support, and discuss reasons why they may feel uneasy about attending appointments and find resolves. However, be careful to show that you’re not simply telling them to go elsewhere for support, keep reminding them that they’re able to talk to you too.


What you shouldn't say: Imagine this – You’re happily married with one child, work full-time with a good wage, the mortgage has been paid off, your family is happy and healthy - life seems perfect. Then, through no fault of your own, you’re not sleeping or eating enough, you have little energy to last the day, nothing seems to bring you pleasure anymore and you can’t see the enjoyment in life. This has lasted for months and you’ve had enough. You've become desperate. You decide to tell your partner how you’ve been feeling. Spending weeks building up the courage, planning what to say over and over again… and your partner tells you to ‘Get over it’. Ouch. Who knows what happened to them? They certainly didn’t talk about their mental health again.


  • 'Snap out of it.' – Telling someone with depression to ‘Snap out of it’ is like telling a paraplegic to ‘Walk it off’. It’s not going to happen. Mental illnesses can’t be turned on and off with the flick of a switch, it takes weeks, months, sometimes even years of therapy and/or medication to be treated. It can be extremely damaging to say this and only shows a lack of understanding for the severity of their situation.

  • ‘You can’t have a mental illness; you have so much to be happy about/grateful for.’ – I can understand why people say this, to an extent anyway - to try and remind people of life’s positives. Only mental illnesses are not as simple as that. With depression, for example, people can experience symptoms such as anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) and apathy (a lack of emotion) so while it may be easy for other people to think about happiness and gratitude, it can be much harder for a person with a mental illness.

  • ‘It’s all in your head’ – This doesn’t offer any support to someone who is suffering. Yes, it’s partly in their head but that just oversimplifies it. One theory to explain mental illnesses is that your neurotransmitters (chemicals in your brain) are sending too many or too few messages, e.g. there is evidence to show anxiety is linked to a serotonin deficiency, which in turn, affects your appetite, sleep, memory, etc. Not only that, but in the case of anxiety or panic attacks, when someone experiences an anxious thought – their body reacts too; their heart rate increases, they experience a shortness of breath and begin sweating, sometimes feeling like they’re going to die. Meaning that anxiety and other mental illnesses do also have physical effects on the body, and so it shouldn’t be reduced to being ‘all in your head’. Mental illnesses are real and can be extremely difficult to live with, so understanding how they’re caused can allow you to provide more effective help.

  • ‘You shouldn’t take your medication, have you tried running/healthy eating instead?’ – Leading on from my last point, medication has been introduced and developed to ease the physical symptoms of mental illness. For example, SSRIs (Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) were introduced to increase the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, thus increasing energy levels, appetite and resulting in a better night’s sleep. Medication can be a life-saver to some people and unless you’re someone’s doctor, or strongly believe that a person is misusing their medication, you shouldn’t question a person’s choice to take medication for their illness.

Support:

- Samaritans: www.samaritans.org/

- Mind: www.mind.org.uk/

- CALM: www.thecalmzone.net/

- #SmallTalkSavesLives Campaign www.samaritans.org/media-centre/our-campaigns/small-talk-saves-lives


Note: I have no affiliations with the above websites, links and hashtags.


I hope you’ve found this post useful, and as always, please note that I am not a mental health professional or any other type of professional, this is simply a hobby for me and is for informational purposes only and shouldn’t be seen as any kind of advice. I am not liable for any consequences as a result of this information and if readers rely on any of the information on my blog, it is at their own risk. I cannot confirm that all information is correct, accurate or reliable. The information is true to the best of my knowledge, yet there may be omissions, errors or mistakes. This information isn’t intended as a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have, or believe to have, a mental illness, please contact a mental health professional.


Note: This picture belongs to Wix.


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