May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and while this month sheds extra light upon the growing mental health crisis, it’s more important than ever to continue spreading awareness beyond the month of May. According to the CDC, more than 1 in 5 adults in the US live with mental illness, and 1 in 25 adults live with mental illness considered serious, with conditions such as bipolar, schizophrenia and major depression. On top of this, 1 in 5 young people either currently face or will face major mental health issues. The reasons for this uptick in mental health issues can be attributed to various factors such as genetics, social media, traumatic events, substance abuse and more.
While COVID-19 caused many individuals to experience mental health issues for the first time, as well as increased ongoing mental health struggles for others, it is a misconception that the pandemic caused the current mental health crisis in the US. According to an article by the New York Times in 2022, “It would be easy to blame the pandemic for changes in mental health that have been observed since March 2020. But in December, when the surgeon general noted a “mental-health crisis” among young people, he made clear that rising numbers of children and young adults were struggling with anxiety and depression before Covid-19.”
While the reasons for these issues vary from individual to individual and are often a combination of factors, the truth remains: many individuals feel a lack of support and resources to heal and manage their mental well-being. Free resources and advice exist online, but professional help can be costly and unaccessible. Furthermore, for people struggling, exerting effort to search for resources and help can be exhausting and daunting when surviving each day is already a monumental task.
This begs the question: how do we support our loved ones with mental health issues? Similarly, how can we support ourselves when everything feels bleak, hopeless or even impossible? Today, Team HJG is exploring 5 different ways to offer support to yourself and loved ones.
- Ask What the Person Needs:
Because we care about our loved ones, it’s easy to jump in and try to fix things, offering solutions and advice. However, asking someone what they need can be a gentle way to offer support. A great rule of thumb, even for those who simply want to vent, is asking the following: Would you like advice / words of support or a listening ear? Often, people struggling, especially with ongoing mental health issues, understand that there is no magic fix. However, having a trusted space to release thoughts and feelings can go a long way.
An article by HuffPost explains how this method works well. “…If everyone is clear on what is desired in the communication, then the chances are much higher that both people will feel good about their connection.” This method is usually beneficial for everyone in involved, as clear parameters of communication are set before the conversation even begins.
- Offer Silent Presence:
Sometimes, mental health struggles can be so overpowering that communicating with others is not possible or comforting. Jenna, a teacher who has struggled with chronic depression, weighs in on her experience. “Luckily, I have been to therapy and understand that when my depression flares, my mind tells me nasty things that are not true. The tricky part is that those thoughts are so believable in the moment.” While Jenna knows these thoughts are temporary and untrue, it’s scary for her to sit alone with them. “I don’t want to talk to anyone during those times, but I also want to feel the presence of someone else.”
Sitting in silence with someone who is struggling can offer support and love, even if it feels like you’re not doing anything. Knowing someone is there, whether on the phone, in-person or online, can be a reminder that we are not alone. Trusted loved ones, therapists, online communities and free phone help lines are all options.
- Provide Tangible Help with Life Tasks:
When mental health struggles take over, basic life tasks can be pushed to the side. It’s quite exhausting to battle a mental illness, so outside tasks can feel superfluous, even necessities like eating and showering. The shame that accompanies mental health struggles can prevent people from reaching out and asking for help. If you notice a loved one struggling, offering to help them with outside tasks can be transformative.
“I have ADHD, depression and OCD,” says Jimmy, a therapist. During my worst days, my house goes unmanaged, and I struggle to prepare even microwaveable meals.” Luckily, Jimmy has a support system to help him through these times. “My friend Claude works at a local restaurant, and he will bring me leftover food at the end of his shifts.”
Offering to help struggling loved ones can look like dropping off meals, driving them to appointments, grocery shopping, cleaning their home or whatever else they may need.
- Brainstorm a Self-Care Plan:
Tough times can be unpredictable and sneaky. Having a self-care plan in place may not cure the issues, but it can be the difference between spiraling and making it through to the other side. Self-care looks different for everyone; however, when the mind is sick, remembering what we enjoy or the actions that helps us feel comforted can be difficult. Therefore, having a preemptive self-care plan is wise.
The following questions can assist in building an individualized self-care plan:
- What makes you feel better when you’re struggling?
- What things should you avoid when you feel down?
- Who can you turn to when you feel alone?
- What can you do when things feel desperate?
- Where can you go if you feel trapped in your mind?
- Are there any mantras that help you during these times?
- Do you have any comfort meals, movies, people, places?
- Take Care of Yourself:
Taking care of struggling loved ones can be rewarding, but it can also be exhausting. Expending emotional, physical and mental energy can cause caretakers to experience burnout and even develop mental health issues themselves. When we worry about the well-being of the people in our lives, it’s natural for our energy to deplete. This is why it is of utmost importance to remember that your well-being comes first. Pouring into others when your cup is empty will only create more deficit, and burnout is a dangerous place to exist.
While it’s easier said than done, it’s important to understand that you cannot fix everything for everyone, even the people you love the most. Maintaining boundaries and reminding yourself that you deserve self-care and relaxation is just as important as checking in on struggling loved ones.
“Due to a life filled with trauma, my childhood best friend has suffered from ongoing mental health issues for years. I felt like it was my responsibility as their best friend to drop everything at any time they needed me,” says Alex, a soccer coach. While friends, family and other individuals are a great resource to turn to for support, they are still humans with their own struggles and need for self-care.
The best thing a caretaker can do is take care of themself. “I found myself growing resentful of my friend, because I felt like I was giving and giving and becoming exhausted. Eventually, I realized that I needed to establish some boundaries,” Alex remembers. With open communication, Alex and his friend came up with mutual boundaries, as well as a code word for emergency situations.
Communicating clear boundaries to others is not a requirement, and it may be met with some resistance and even hostility from others who may not be accustom to you doing so. Nevertheless, reminding yourself that your own peace of mind is just as important as theirs is imperative. Boundary setting is a practice, and it might feel uncomfortable and even cause feelings of guilt. Ultimately, you can’t give wholeheartedly to others when your own tank is depleted.
When it comes to caring for people suffering with their mental health, there is no clear cut answer or solution. It’s important to remember that as a supporter, it is not your job to fix anything. Support does not equate to full-fledged solutions. However, asking what your loved one needs in a moment, being present, even silently, and offering to help with tangible tasks are all options. Joining forces to create a self-care plan for tough times can also be beneficial. Most importantly, taking care of your own mind, body and spirit is critical. After all, you cannot properly support others if you don’t extend support to yourself.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service), or TTY: 1-800-487-4889 is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.