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Helping a loved-one with a mental health problem can be one of life's biggest challenges. How do you avoid making mistakes?

Supporting a loved-one with a mental health issue can be a huge challenge. You want to make a positive difference in the life of your friend or relative, but often have no idea how to act. Today, we'll be discussing how to help a loved-one with a mental health problem in the most general terms. Mental health challenges come in numerous forms, after all — but there are some similarities too: everyone with a mental health problem needs love and support, and everyone playing such a supportive role feels lost sometimes. 

Think Before You Act

Your loved-one might already have been diagnosed with a mental health issue, or their behavior may have led you to suspect mental illness. In either case, it can be extremely tempting to tell them exactly what you think they should do, think, or believe. "You need some help, man", you may desperately want to say if your loved-one isn't currently seeing any mental health professionals. If they are, you may still want to tell them to get over their depression, or to stop drinking, or that their neighbors aren't really in on some big conspiracy against them. 

Don't do it. Blurting out whatever comes to mind is a bad idea that could cost you your relationship with your loved-one, at the very time they need you most. So think before you act.

The most constructive thing you can do is to inform yourself about your loved-one's diagnosis thoroughly, if they already have a diagnosis they have shared with you. The internet is a great tool that will tell you all about the symptoms and treatment of any mental health issue or personality disorder. By frequenting forums designed for people with the relevant diagnosis, you can additionally gain valuable insights into life with that diagnosis from the patient's point of view. 

Does your loved-one not have a diagnosis, because they don't think there is anything wrong with them perhaps? You may believe the absolute priority is getting them to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. While they are indeed likely to benefit from this, the mere suggestion that they see a professional could put an abrupt end to your relationship.

What are you going to do instead? The answer is probably that you'll browse the internet in an effort to "diagnose" your loved-one yourself. While this might be helpful in informing you how to handle the situation, it can also backfire. Keep in mind that identical or very similar symptoms could have quite a few different causes, and that you might not have the background information — not to mention education — to draw the right conclusion. Thinking your loved-one has bipolar disorder when they really have PTSD isn't helpful, to name an example. 

Listen, Listen, Listen (And Don't Lecture)

No matter what mental health issue your loved-one is facing, they will want to feel supported, listened to, and loved — pretty much like the rest of us, really! People struggling with mental illness may feel their world is falling apart. Having at least one constant can be life-saving, in some cases literally. A non-judgmental, caring friend or relative can be that one constant. By being there for your loved-one and really listening to their problems, you are providing something truly valuable. 

Really listening means you have to stay away from judgment and ill-informed comments. Here are some general tips to help with that:

  • If mental illness seems to have taken your loved-one's personality over, remember that they are more than their mental illness. Think of the good times when things get tough for you.
  • Never make comments that minimize how your loved-one is feeling. 
  • In case of delusions, never acknowledge that the delusion is real but don't say you don't believe it either — that carries a huge risk they will not trust you any longer.
  • Don't try to change your loved-one's mind in general (suicide would be one exception!). Instead, be a sounding board and make it clear that you care. 

In some cases, you may be able to suggest counseling or treatment. This depends on your loved-one's general attitude towards their own issues and mental health support in general. This is something you're going to have to go with your gut on. Unfortunately, suggesting treatment when your loved-one doesn't see they have a problem can be terribly counterproductive. Proceed with caution.

You may not be able to "fix your loved-one's life", but you are able to provide support and love. Don't underestimate the positive impact of those things, while also remembering you are not a mental health professional.

Supporting Loved-Ones Through Mental Illness

Ask What You Can Do

You're itching to do something practical to make your loved-one feel better. Indeed, you may think that your loved-one has lost control of their life and be tempted to step in and do whatever you think is necessary. Rather than intervene in the way you see fit, your loved-one will feel better and benefit more if you ask exactly how you can help. 

Being helpful and supportive is wonderful. On the other side of the coin, do be careful and try to avoid enabling behaviors that come with the mental health situation. This could come in many forms, depending on what diagnosis you are dealing with. You'll know about it when you get there though, and it's up to you to decide what you do and do not want to do.

Join A Support Group For You

Living with a mental health problem can be stressful and terrifying, but playing a supporting role can have a serious impact on a person's mental health all in itself. You'll benefit if you make sure to take care of yourself, both in general and specifically in relation to your supporting role.

Joining a real-life or online support group for friends, relatives and partners of people dealing with the same diagnosis will help you stay sane and learn more. You'll be able to vent about your own experiences and get advice. You'll also be able to learn how others are coping, and to find recognition. 

Simultaneously, you may want to look into counseling for you. A therapist can help you through the tough times you will experience with your loved-one. They might also be able to offer tips on how to cope with the particular diagnosis your loved-one received. 

Don't forget to take time out from dealing with the person you are supporting either — no matter how close to you they are. Do things that help you relax and enjoy life. Besides being beneficial for you, making sure you feel good about yourself will also enable you to be a better support person for your loved-one.

When Should You Have Your Loved One Committed?

There are times during which you can simply not stand by and be a support person — times during which a mental health facility can provide the safest environment for your loved-one. Being involved in organizing an involuntary commitment for your loved-one may well damage your relationship with them forever, but it can also save their life in extreme cases. 

Laws on who can initiate involuntary commitment and how long it can go on for vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In general, the person needs to be an immediate threat to themselves or others in order to "qualify" for it. Do you believe the situation is extreme enough to warrant involuntary commitment? You can:

  • Contact the local police, hospital, or mental health facility to gather information about the circumstances in which involuntary commitment is possible. 
  • Talk to the person's immediate relatives (if you're not one of them) to inform them of the situation. 
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