You’ve Got a Friend in Me: Supporting Your Loved Ones with Mental Illness

Shmuel Fischler, LCSW-C · August 22, 2018

When we or someone we love struggle with mental illness, be it anxiety, depression or something else, the symptoms and stigma can all take a toll. In many cases, stigma causes sufferers to internalize and isolate, which can create a heavier burden and an additional roadblock on the way to recovery. Supporting a loved one with mental illness won’t just help lessen the load, but will also help to lessen the stigma around mental illness.

The Value of Social Support

A recent study from Indiana University examined the effects of social support networks on the negative impacts of stigma and discrimination on people dealing with mental illness. The study found that for individuals in the study, the perception of social support around them had a dramatic, positive and direct effect on mental health. Those who had greater social support also indicated a more positive mental health state. The social support around a person with mental illness doesn’t just include family and friends, but can also include treatment providers.

Learn More

Learn as much as you can about the mental illness that your loved one is facing from reputable sources, like the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) or a local mental health association. These groups can also be a wonderful place to get into a support group if you find yourself wanting to learn from others in a similar situation. In addition to learning about the mental illness, you should be prepared to be a part of the therapy process if the clinician thinks it would be appropriate for you to participate. By working along with the treatment team, you can understand more about what behaviors are supportive and what behaviors can become enabling.

Ask What Helps

It’s tempting to want to fix your loved one’s situation right away, and many people fall into the trap of suggesting things that worked for them during a time of sadness or anxiety. However, you should not minimize the experience of your loved one or assume that what works for you will work for them. Instead, ask what helps. Even if your friend has trouble articulating what you could do to help, asking how you can support them instead of telling them how you will support them shows that you’re willing to listen.  

You Can’t Do It All

Supporting a friend or family member dealing with mental illness can be emotionally exhausting. It’s vital that you pace yourself and avoid falling into a mindset where you are a fixer or savior. Your love alone cannot save someone or take the place of treatment for mental illness, so don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t. You should also remember that realistic expectations for recovery are key. Many mental illnesses are lifelong battles that don’t follow a straight line from diagnosis to recovery, so if you are going to be along for the ride, you can’t get worn out too early in the journey.

Help for You and Your Loved Ones 

If you’re struggling to support a friend or family member with mental illness, you aren’t alone. Reach out to CBT Baltimore at 443-470-9815. We would love to help.