One of the biggest worries of a mentally ill person is that they are a terrible burden on their friends and family. As an outsider, most of what you can contribute is verbal. Regularly remind your loved one that they are not a burden, they are not going to lose you, you love them, and that it’s okay to be upset. Physical contact is also very powerful: a hand on the back, a squeeze of the hand, or a hug can make an enormous difference in the current mental state of your loved one in crisis. If it’s appropriate to your relationship, lay with them and hold them, or let them put their head in your lap so that you can pet the side of their head. This sounds very basic and very infantile, but the difference you’ll make is enormous. Just being present with your sick loved one is powerful. Try to listen without judgment, and try not to give advice, only reassurance that they’re safe and loved. If your loved one is very sick and not making good choices, keep them at home. Even a trip to the grocery store could be catastrophic for their state of being. If they’re not making sense, do not let them cook or drive, and keep a close eye on them to keep them safe.
If your loved one is suicidal, take them immediately to the emergency room, because they’re going to need to go through a 72-hour hold in a psychiatric facility in order to prescribe or correct their medication. If they are experiencing suicidal ideation but are not fully suicidal, help them make an appointment with a psychiatrist as soon as possible, and help make sure that they make it to that appointment and follow through on filling their prescriptions. Encourage them to set alarms on their phone that repeat every day to remind them to take their medicine on time, because sticking to a regular meds schedule is crucial.
If you’re new to this game, this all may seem overwhelming, and the truth is, it is. Mental illness is hard for everyone involved, and many loved ones of mentally ill people struggle to be supportive. It can feel like drowning. What you need to remember is that there will be good days. There will be easy days. There can be happy days, happy weeks, happy months, but only if the sick person is getting proper treatment and support. They will need loved ones, a doctor, and a talk-therapy professional. Support groups are also a wonderful resource, both for you and your loved one. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) can show you what support groups are in your area. Click here to find a support group near you. Some groups are designed for the patient, some groups are designed for family and friends, and NAMI offers classes that give thorough information on what mental illnesses are and how they work. Understanding the perspective of a loved one, any loved one, will strengthen and deepen your relationship.
Everyone who has ever loved me has been part of keeping me alive, and I will always be grateful for that. I’ve finally learned that I’m loved even when I’m sick, and though I hardly ever remember that when I go through episodes, the people who love and support me are kind enough to reassure me again and again, because they know now that that’s what I need. I’m very lucky to have the support system I have, and it’s been twelve years in the making. That’s twelve years of me learning about myself and my illness, learning to communicate my needs to the people around me, and those people around me learning how to best cope with my episodes. Episodes are never easy or fun, but today I can cope with much more strength and grace than I had when I started this journey, and I know that trend will continue. It gets easier. It’s easier for me now, and it’s easier for the people who love me. It will get easier for you, too. I promise.