It is well known by now that mental illness in general does not impact just the sufferer of such a condition, but also their loved ones. The burden is shared between parties. I’m reminded of a poem where a man has reached the end of his life and is talking to God. They look back at a figurative journey they have made through the sand to see footprints representing his life. In some parts there are two sets of footprints, but at the most difficult moments of his life there are only one set of footprints. The man turns to God and says how could you leave me at these moments when I needed you most? God replies, I never left you, when you see one set of footprints, that is when I carried you.
The lines can be blurred on how to ‘carry’ someone through their mental health issues. How can they be supported but encouraged toward independence and autonomy? Who listens to the listener? There is more awareness than ever with consistent campaigns regarding suicide and depression. However, there does not seem to be much in place for the millions of loved ones whom feel so helpless in supporting them. So how do the carers of those who suffer offer efficient support to those around them whilst making sure that they are also being looked after?
I always like put to my client the analogy with the oxygen mask on the plane. When the flight attendant demonstrates the safety briefing, they suggest that the adult secures their own mask first, and only then attend for their children. Why is that? Are they teaching us to be selfish? No. The reason is simple: if we are deprived of oxygen, then we will lose our consciousness very quickly and we will be left unable to attend for those who are more vulnerable and need our support. In terms of being the carer or loved one, of someone who struggles with mental illness, this will translate as if you are not taking your time to breathe. If you are unable to relax and re-charge your batteries, then there is a high chance that your own emotional, mental and physical health will suffer. Once this happens, it will be very difficult if not impossible to offer the help our loves ones so desperately need.
It is not selfish to look after yourself! It is wise.
I believe that every loved one could benefit from guidance so they feel able to support the person suffering with mental health problems. So here are just a few steps that have been thought to help. It’s not an easy journey. It will definitely not be plain sailing. But, hopefully, these few steps will give you hope; feel more grounded and together with your loved one overcome their illness and get through these difficult times.
Step one: Are you ready?
Make sure that you are in the right space of mind and are able to build on your emotional resilience. If you are not ready to embark on this journey – don’t, come back when you are. It will lead to a myriad of turmoil for you and the person suffering. Whenever you need a break make sure to give yourself that time where you can attend to your own needs: if you need more sleep do that, if you need to go out and see friends, don’t hesitate, if you have a doctors appointment make that a priority, if you need to see a therapist yourself pick up the phone and make that appointment and so on.
Step two: Get clued in.
A lot of people with mental health conditions do not feel that people understand them. Read up on their condition and how it can impact their thought process, there is a reason they will be doing things differently to the majority of people. The solution may seem obvious when you are not affected by it but you would not tell a blind person to ‘hurry up and see’. Plus showing them that you have put in effort to understand them works wonders for the relationship.
Step three: Listen.
I know that this has been covered time and time again over a variety of publications, but it can make a tremendous difference to the way in which our loved ones feel supported. If you are unsure of what you have to do, ask them. Don’t be afraid about opening the conversation and admitting to your own limitation. You are only human. Ask them if they just want to feel listened to or if they are looking for your input. Sometimes people want to know what others think just to check-in with their own reality.
Step four: Express yourself.
Constructively tell them how their actions make you feel. It is part of human condition to feel overwhelmed by emotions when we find ourselves in the middle of a conflict; this in turn can result with sentiment clouding the message and giving little to no consideration for the person you are interacting with and their perspective.
This only leads for the other person not to block what you are saying and to respond in a defensive way. However, if you would be to give feedback in a healthy manner, where you take responsibility for the way you feel and just name the behaviour that bothers you. There is a better chances of having a conversation rather than an argument where both people hurt each other out of fear of being hurt themselves. The script that is most commonly used for what is called constructive feedback is ‘When you…I feel…because what I make of this is….’. This frames the conversation in a way in which it can be digested by the person hearing it and also puts you in a position where you can put the message across.
Step five: Put boundaries in place.
Many people fear that by doing this they are rude or that they are being disrespectful. In reality, boundaries equal structure, boundaries equal safety, boundaries equal care and love, boundaries equal respect towards yourself and your loved one. Do not be afraid to express your needs, wants and limitations just because you are dealing with someone who is struggling with their mental health.
As long as they have the mental capacity, they are able to offer respect as much as they are to receive it. When boundaries are put in place in a reasonable, achievable, considerate and loving way, they can constitute one of the most important steps towards recovery. To carry on from the above example, this can be done by saying ‘If you … (specify behaviour you are struggling with) again, I will remind you of this conversation. If you carry on doing it, then I will … (chose a consequence that is reasonable to the behaviour and that you can carry through).’ There is no point in making empty threats. This exercise is about building your relationship not an opportunity to put the other person down.
Step six: Be kind to yourself.
Mental illness is difficult and unpredictable. There will be times when you will get it right and there will be other times when it will seem like everything is falling apart. And that is ok. Take a deep breath and tell yourself that you’re are doing everything you can. And that is good enough!