This is one of the most common questions I get from clients or family members. Caring for a person with a psychiatric diagnosis or complex mental health issues can be a difficult experience even though the positive and valuable moments with them don’t cease to exist. Re-learning how to relate meaningfully with people with a mental illness can bring us closer to our family and friends, cultivate our communication skills and develop empathy.
If you are reading this, I’ll go ahead and assume that you ‘re already interested in discovering something new in order for you to support your loved one or to support yourself better in this specific situation. In my opinion, the more we know about human psychology the better we understand behaviours, accept them (or not) and combat the stigma around mental health.
For the expats who are reading this, living abroad adds the element of geographical distance to a relationship. However, geographical distance doesn’t always have to equal emotional distance. When we don’t share an everyday routine daily disputes are often missing. As a result, the communication might be more open and substantial.
Every personal or family story is different and unique. Nevertheless, I tried to gather some general information which may be interesting and useful for some.
How can I support my loved one?
- Ask the person what support they think they need. This may sound like an obvious step but -trust me- we often forget to ask the people around us what kind of help they need from us.
- Listen to what they have to say and don’t judge their experience. Don’t tell them how they should feel or react.
- Take their personal experience seriously, no matter how absurd some things may seem to you.
- Practice patience, stability and calmness. A person who might see or hear things that frighten them or experiences emotions they cannot regulate easily might need a quiet and secure environment where they can feel safer and more supported.
- Talk about boundaries and expectations of your relationship. If your beloved one has difficulty being alone or often experiences feelings of abandonment, it is helpful for them to know what you can offer, your availability and limitations.
- If the person has a diagnosis read a bit about it but don’t forget that every individual is unique and their personal experience may differ significantly from what the diagnostic criteria or various texts describe.
- Talk openly about your feelings and the person’s behaviours that may challenge you without putting a blame on them. People with mental health difficulties don’t necessarily need a “special treatment” from you.
- Don’t treat them like children. They are adults! They sometimes might be vulnerable adults but their point of view and opinion is valid.
- Ask the person which conversation topics or behaviours might trigger them and learn to recognize them.
- Build a communication bridge with them and maintain it even with a simple text like “Just checking in how are you today?”. People with severe and complex mental health issues tend to isolate themselves and often feel alone.
- Don’t forget to tell the individual that you love them or that you care about them. Remind them often about what you love about their personality.
- Encourage them to seek professional support (if they haven’t already). But the final decision is theirs. You can only lead by example by taking care of yourself.
How do I practise self-care?
- Prioritise yourself. If we don’t take care of ourselves first how can we support others? You can’t fill from an empty cup!
- Set boundaries. Specific, discussed but flexible boundaries in a relationship create a safe environment and benefit both parties.
- Learn to express and manage your own uncomfortable feelings. When a person has a close relationship with an individual with complex mental health issues it’s not rare to experience various distressing and uncomfortable emotions.
- Give yourself a break. Take a deep breath. Studies show that people who care for people with a psychiatric diagnosis tend to be stressed and worried all the time which may have a mental health impact in the long run.
- Don’t neglect your personal and social life. Sometimes we tend to get absorbed in unpleasant situations and forget to do our hobbies or have fun with friends.
- Engage in creative activities such as writing, listening to music, dancing or photography.
- Take care of your body with adequate sleep and movement/exercise.
- Seek support from a mental health professional if you are dealing with overwhelming emotions and distressing thoughts that affect your daily life.