There are times in our lives when we are called upon to do things that we never imagined. It is during these times that we find out just how strong we are.
That time for me came when my son fell into a deep depression and began to self-harm. Parenting can be difficult enough if your child is healthy, but if they have a mental illness it can be life altering.
When my children were young I read parenting books; the ones that explained how to train your child to sleep through the night and offered strategies for dealing with temper tantrums. When my children entered adolescents, I studied parenting books that demonstrated how to talk so they would listen and how to cope with angry outbursts while staying calm and maintaining my sanity. When my son suffered from severe depression and starting self-harming, I couldn’t find parenting books that provided me with skills, practical information, and therapeutic tools to help him. I felt frustrated, alone, and helpless.
It took a lot of time and effort to find the right course to help my son, and along the way I was able to help myself and others.
So, how can you help friends and family who are living with a mental health disorder?
Know the signs and symptoms
Knowing the warning signs for mental illness can help you to be a better parent and friend. There are multiple signs such as: excessive worrying or fear, feeling excessively sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks, extreme mood changes, prolonged irritability or anger, changes in sleep and eating habits, extreme difficulty concentrating, reckless behavior, and trying to harm or kill oneself. [i] This is not a comprehensive list and some of these might be subtle, but knowing this information could be the difference between life and death.
Set clear boundaries
Setting clear guidelines, rules or limits with friends and family can keep you from becoming overwhelmed. Make sure that you take time out for yourself. Be aware of enabling or repeatedly “rescuing” him or her, this can lead to a codependent relationship. When my son was experiencing depression, I did everything for him because I wanted him to feel better and this over-protective parenting led to an unhealthy relationship. During that time, I often felt helpless and without a choice. After speaking with a counselor, I realized that my bond with my son was no longer safe or healthy for me. I slowly let him handle decisions for himself, allowing him to feel pride in what he did, and then I could validate and praise him. Over several months our relationship changed from an enabling one to a nurturing one.
Know how to make symptoms better
There are many ways to help with the symptoms of mental illness. These range from traditional (cognitive behavioral, group, and medication) to non-traditional (art, pet, meditation, music, and movement) therapies and everything in between. The most important thing to remember is to choose a positive method. My son chose self-harm to help with his suicidal thoughts and depression. The self-harm worked in the moment, but it did not make symptoms better, in fact, in the long run, it made things worse. The earlier someone living with a mental health condition seeks treatment the better the chance of recovery. Include your friend or family member in your plans, help them stay positive, and encourage them to follow their treatment plan.
Talk about it
Not only is it important for treatment that someone who lives with a mental illness talks to others about it, it is equally important that friends and caregivers talk too. Parents, caretakers, siblings, and friends want to discuss the mental illness in their lives. They want to know that others are going through similar difficulties; they want to know that they are not alone. If those who are directly living through the mental illness of a loved one would be willing to talk about it, then maybe those who are physically experiencing it would be inspired to seek the help they need. If we take away the shame that goes with discussing mental illness and understand that it is an illness like any other, we open a door to real progress and improvement for mental health care.
Yes, I know what you are thinking. It’s scary, I know I kept the secret of my son’s mental illness hidden from just about everyone in my life. Why? Fear, shame, and embarrassment, all words surrounding stigma. Looking back now, I wonder why I was so afraid. Since I have “come out” about my son’s mental illness everyone I know has been supportive and encouraging, but such is not the case for many. I remain in the lucky few. It wasn’t easy for me to discuss my son’s illness. There were many awkward conversations, but the more I talked about mental health, the more comfortable I became and the more people I found who understood, empathized or were going through a similar situation. And these individuals wanted to talk about it openly and honestly. They wanted information, guidance, or just someone to listen.
Remember to validate
Validation is one of the most important elements to learn before helping anyone.
As humans, we want to “fix” problems. Often the best thing to do in a situation is to validate feelings, not diminish them. Validation does not mean you agree with someone else’s choice or even their feelings, instead it’s telling them that it is okay to have these feelings and that you still care about them. This will help your friend or family member feel seen, heard, and accepted and to know that what they say matters and is understood. Everyone deserves to be accepted without judgment.
Help to reduce stigma and take action
Each and every one of us has the power to help eliminate the misunderstanding, lack of acceptance, and the stigma surrounding mental health conditions. [ii]
Share links to resources on social media. Don’t stereotype or label others. Use people first language. Wear a mental health awareness bracelet-this can be a great conversation starter. Become a volunteer and a mental health advocate.
This is nobody’s fault
There is a propensity in society to blame people for their mental illness, as if they had a choice in the matter. We also tend to blame the parents for the “faults” of their children.
You wouldn’t want this for yourself, your child or another family member. Do not blame yourself or anyone else. Mental illness is just an illness of the brain. It is just like any other physical illness. Mental illness is no one’s fault.
The daily energy spent on helping someone who lives with a mental illness is enormous. Don’t give up hope, savor the good times. If you are struggling and drained of energy and life-force you can’t help anyone else. It is impossible to do it all yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help in your community.
It takes a village…. The time-honored African proverb speaks of the importance of community. Some say it originated from the Nigerian Igbo culture and proverb Ora na azu nwa, which means, it takes the community/village to raise a child. [iii]
So, use your village or community and get the help you need and deserve.
Theresa Larsen graduated from Florida State University with a degree in elementary education and a minor in psychology. She taught school in England, Wales, and the United States for over twelve years. She is a trained presenter and coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s “Ending the Silence”-a mental health awareness program for youth. She is also a writer and her writing credits include a Welsh children’s book, an educational article published in the Cardiff Advisory Service for Education, parenting and mental health articles published on Yahoo, PsychCentral, The Mighty, The Stigma Fighters Anthology Volume 2, and her award-winning memoir, Cutting the Soul: A journey into the mental illness of a teenager through the eyes of his mother.
Learn more about Theresa at http://www.theresalarsen.com/
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