Mental Illness: The Answer to “How Can I Help?”


When you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, family and friends often ask, “What can I do to help?”  We usually don’t know what to say. We don’t even know how to help ourselves.  After some research and consideration, here are some of my answers:

Be Realistic

Acknowledge the sickness, and never say anything like, “Get a hold of yourself” or “Snap out of it.”  Don’t expect a quick cure, either. Healing takes time and patience.

My husband knew all was not well when we got married.  During those first glorious years, I think I was in some sort of remission, so he didn’t take my illness that seriously.  I finished my Masters degree and became a teacher.  Then when I started sinking, he thought, “She’ll bounce back.”  When I sank further, he did everything he could to try and fix me.  Eventually, he learned (as I have also had to learn) that there’s no magic pill or form of therapy that will transform me overnight.

Some family members and “friends” still don’t quite understand why I can’t just try a little harder and be fine.  I’ve learned to tune them out rather than let those darts  hit home.  I’ve slowly gotten better, but I am still unable to work.  I get brief periods of energy now and then, but they don’t last very long.  It’s all about management…inching forward one baby step at a time, which is the primary focus of this blog.

Be compassionate

Sometimes all we need is to know you care.  We need you to be tolerant of our difficulties, and we also need some reassurance that you won’t abandon us.

Growing up, I was terrified.  I tried to be very very good in order to minimize the painful experiences, but I could never be good enough.  Someone special had to teach me faith, or I would not have made it this far. My father, who took me in when I ran away at 17,  passed away a few months ago.  He was the first person in my life to teach me the meaning of unconditional love.  He never said a harsh word to me, ever.  If I did something wrong, he would teach me how to do better rather than blame me for my mistakes.  I kept expecting disaster.  I had learned from my childhood that disaster was inevitable.  One day, I thought, my father would have enough of me, but he never did.  He was always there.  He was always protecting me.

Be alert

After educating yourself on the nature and treatment of the specific illness, watch for symptom changes or signs of trouble.  Your objective  input at a doctor visit can be extremely helpful.

When we feel horrible all the time, the days begin to blur together.  Answering questions about sleep and eating patterns, side effects of medications, and so on can be difficult.  We’re not always aware of our own behaviors.  Fortunately, my husband goes with me to all my appointments and fills in the blanks.  This is a huge help.

It’s VERY IMPORTANT if we begin talking about suicide to take it seriously. Suicidal thoughts are common with depression.  Don’t panic.  Just be aware.  Repeated thoughts of suicide over time may lull you into a false sense of security.  You may think she never means it.  However, if we actually describes a realistic plan, then it’s time to take action.  Contact the doctor immediately or go to the hospital emergency room.

Be flexible

Unfortunately, you may have to make some lifestyle changes to accommodate symptoms of a specific illness. For example, I have panic disorder. Anything the subconscious associates with danger can be a trigger for a panic attack.  It might be an object, a place, a person that reminds you of someone in your past, a day of the year.  Pay attention to what always triggers a panic attack. Then, it’s good to have a strategy in place for dealing with one.

I had to stop going to church, the movie theater, and other crowded places with my family because I would have a panic attack every time and have to leave anyway, ruining the experience for everyone.  The trigger for me is a crowded room where I feel trapped.  Now, if I’m forced into a situation (like court) or having a very brave day, I might be able to go out for a short period of time, but I need to sit on the end of a booth/row of seats, have a good view of the room especially the exits, and have some physical distance between my family and other people.  My family knows what an attack looks like, so they know if they see one starting,  it’s time to pack up and leave quickly.  They also know I’ll need air and a place to lie down.

Be firm

I hate to say this, but at times we may need you to intervene on our behalf whether we like it or not.

During one of my “up” periods, I had the bright idea that I didn’t need treatment anymore, and my husband was forced to take a stand.  Don’t agree to stop medication or treatment unless our doctor has agreed to it.

Don’t go along with delusions if that’s part of the illness.  Stick to the truth.  Also, don’t tolerate violent behavior.   Set clear boundaries.  If we have repeated violent outbreaks, ask for professional advice.  Hospitalization may be necessary  until our behavior is under control.  So far, that hasn’t been a problem for my family, but I would never want to repeat the cycle from my youth.

Be brave

“Families say this is the only illness in the world where you don’t get a covered dish. People don’t call, don’t inquire. The cultural understanding of mental illness is either that it’s their fault for getting ill, or it’s the fault of their family.”  This quote from USA Today shows the unfortunate stigma that goes along with mental illness and how that stigma  extends to the entire family.  People will talk behind your back.  People will be outright mean to your face.  Stick with positive people who are kind and distance yourself from the rest.  If they still show up in your life from time to time, do your best to ignore them.

Be aware of your own needs

Like anyone who cares for a person with a long term illness, you’ll be prone to burnout and depression yourself. Take care of your own health.  Do fun stuff.  Talk with friends.  Get other people to help you now and then.  Seek professional counseling for yourself if you need it.  Most of all, don’t blame yourself for what is happening or think that you’ve failed in some way if treatment doesn’t progress the way you expected.  We love you.

Notes from the Author

Slowly, I’m becoming aware of other bloggers who have been moved to help people by their own life circumstances.  In “Do You Teach What You Need to Learn?” Angela Artemis of Powered by Intuition talks about the motivations of personal development bloggers and points the way to some really inspirational sites for you to visit.

A question from a reader inspired me to write this post.  If you find this article helpful, please share it with others.  You have a number of options to share at the end of each post, including Twitter and Facebook.  You have to click “Leave a Comment” to see the share buttons.

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About emilyrossiter

Ever since I was little I was interested in reading and learning. I was the type of kid who did research for fun. Along the way, I have picked up interests in traditional Geek fare such as video games and tabletop RPGs. Science fiction, horror, and fantasy are my "brain candy." I have a B.A. in English and an M.S. in Education. I taught high school English for a while, but unfortunately, I developed an illness that made it impossible for me to work anymore. Staying at home, I rely on my "Geek Profession" to pass the time.

6 responses to “Mental Illness: The Answer to “How Can I Help?”

  1. Seeing that this was my question to begin with, I am so happy with this answer. I’ve already posted this link on my Facebook so my friends and family can read it. Hopefully it will be applied.

  2. Hi Emily,
    I like your blog!! Very interesting topic!
    I enjoyed this article too.
    You’re going to help a lot of people!
    Thanks so much for linking to my article: Do You Teach What You Most Need to Learn?
    I’m looking forward to reading more.

  3. Mendy Lyons

    Emily, I read your blogs and think, “Oh my….we are such kindred spirits.” The three of us. I know we are not alone, but being able to put a face and name to someone else that feels this way-it’s such a relief. There is so much I wish we could talk about. In our family, esp. the older members, depression is talked about in hushed whispers-something you don’t really talk about. And you certainly don’t marry into a family with a history of mental illness. You are so brave and I am so proud of you!

  4. @Jia Thanks so much for the question. I really want to be helpful, so it’s good to know what people would like to read/discuss. I only wish I had your gift for entertaining people. You have such a quirky, lovable voice when you write.

    @Angela Your blog is very inspiring. I read it regularly. :) Thank you for paying me a visit.

    @Mendy I’ve been so blessed by getting to know you and Abbie, and I hope our friendship will continue to develop. It is wondrous when you truly find a “tribe” of kindred spirits. The ugly duckling becomes the swan in your company. Thank you.

  5. These are great answers to a very difficult question!

  6. Thank you for the very helpful information that you provided about mental illness. I believe that most people are thoughtless out of ignorance rather than on purpose but there are some people who work really hard to be unkind and judgmental.

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