If a loved one were to reach out to you to share that they had broken their leg, most (if not all) of us wouldn’t hesitate to rush to their side. We wouldn’t think twice calling up a friend to cancel plans last minute if we came down with the cold. So, why is it that we treat mental and physical illness so differently?

If that same friend simply canceled plans with “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to make it tonight” and no further explanation, we find ourselves annoyed or frustrated, disappointed that our plans have fallen through. However, did you stop to think about why? Or how hard that message may have been to send?

With approximately 1 in 5 American adults experiencing mental illness in any given year, there is more than likely someone in your own life that is currently struggling. This may be a friend, family member, co-worker, or a neighbor. You may not even know what is happening, as they hide their personal struggles behind a fake smile. The stigma associated with mental illness is arguably the number one killer in terms of our mental health, preventing many who suffer from every seeking the help that they need.

If someone in your life is suffering and has taken the difficult step to reach out for help, it is important that we first recognize just how brave this step must be. They are trusting in you, in the fact that you will be there and that you won’t judge them for their struggles. This can be scary or overwhelming, but I promise that as difficult as you find the situation, it is nothing compared to what they are currently living through.

There are ways that you can support and encourage your loved ones during this time. You may be the difference between suffering in silence and finding the courage to seek professional assistance. However, you need to approach this situation with compassion and sensitivity.

Here are 6 tips to better support our friends and family with mental illness:

#1 – Offer Support

Listen carefully as they tell you what they need at this time. If your friend or family member is considering seeking professional assistance, offer to accompany them to their appointment. If they aren’t ready yet for that step, don’t force it, but encourage them to at least call a local helpline or speak with someone. Know your limits and remember that you aren’t a professional.

#2 – Don’t Push Them

If you’re loved one is choosing to open up and share their struggles, accept their personal limits. Don’t push them to share more than they are comfortable with. This additional pressure may actually push them away, leading them to create additional barriers. Instead, allow them to set the pace.

#3 – Avoid Diagnosing

Unless you are a certified mental health professional, avoid diagnosing your loved one. If they are currently seeking treatment, don’t push your thoughts or opinions on the treatment options that their doctor or therapist has decided. Leave the mental health care to the professionals.

#4 – Active Listening

After communication has started, engage in active listening. This means that you aren’t just ‘listening’ to say you did, and you’re not waiting for your opportunity to speak next. Instead, you are engaged, paying attention to what your friend or family member is saying and the meaning behind their words.

#5 – Set Time Aside for Them

It is incredibly difficult for your friend and family member to reach out and ask for help, and the last thing that they want to be is a burden. By making time for them without making a big deal about it or bringing up the sacrifices you may have had to make, you will show your loved one that you are truly there for them when needed. This doesn’t mean you have to have to have all the answers, just offer a shoulder to lean on, a listening ear and a supportive hug.

#6 – Ask Open-Ended Questions

When you do ask your loved one questions, try to keep them open-ended. This will help to continue the conversation and show them that you are interested in their well being without adding additional pressure. Questions like ‘How are you feeling?’ will open the door for communication.

Image via Maxy’s Hideout

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