One of the things that is difficult across the board is understanding how to support someone with mental health issues. People on the outside will say, “Let me know if you need anything!” or “I’m here for you.” Those statements are nice, but they place the burden on the person who is suffering. They may actually feel pressure to come up with a way that you can help. Then again, if you offer some specific way helping, there is no guarantee that someone will be willing to take you up on it. The bottom line is that it’s confusing and it’s hard to know the right way to help people with anxiety or depression. As a psychologist and the spouse of someone with significant mental health struggles, I have come up with a few key principles that can help you be the best supporter possible. I like to call them the 4 Cs of supporting someone with a mental illness.
If you’ve ever bought a diamond ring for someone, you probably became quite familiar with cut, clarity, carat, and color. Those are the 4 Cs of diamonds. A helpful little mnemonic to help you understand just how much of your annual income you are about to blow. When it comes to supporting someone with mental illness, we can distill it down to another 4 Cs: clarity, consistency, compassion, and curiosity. Let’s break these 4 Cs of supporting someone with a mental illness down.
Say exactly what you mean. If you don’t understand what your friend or loved one is feeling, say so. If you don’t know how to help, but care so much that it hurts, say so. A person with mental illness is likely to mentally distort what you say into an interpretation that fits their internal narrative. For example, if you say, “I don’t know what to do for you,” they may interpret that as, “they are tired of my crap and they don’t have any more energy to figure out how to help.” Even if that’s far from the truth, this interpretation is what will stick regardless of what you actually meant. Therefore, in the spirit of clarity, it can be helpful to make less room for interpretation. For instance, you could say “I really care about what you’re going through and I want to help, but I’m not sure the best way to do that. I’ll keep trying, but if there is something specific I can do, please tell me.” That’s pretty damn clear. They still might not believe you, which leads me to the second principle…
Consistency is so important when dealing with mental health issues. By nature, people with depression or anxiety are going to vary in their moods, their mental clarity, and their willingness to interact. You don’t have control over that. So when you say a very clear supportive statement like we talked about above, the person might seem to blow it off or may not be in a place where they can believe you yet. That’s why you want to be consistent. Keep telling them so that one day when those defenses are not as strong and the barriers ease up a bit, they might take you up on your offer or hear what you mean.
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This one may be a bit of a no-brainer, but it’s hard to adequately support someone with mental illness if you don’t actually care about what they are going through. Demonstrating that you understand the gravity and the important of their mental illness can mean a great deal to someone who is struggling. You don’t have to know exactly what they are experiencing, but you do need to appreciate the impact that it has on their life. You need to recognize that they do not want to be this way, but haven’t found a way to work themselves out of it yet. Mental illness is pervasive and it colors your entire experience. It may mean the world to them if you simply understand that it hurts, and it’s exhausting, and they feel guilty for what they are. Be there and reassure them that you see their struggle and don’t think they are are any less for it.
The best way to build compassion for someone is to try to understand what they are going through. This can be hard with someone who has no firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to live with mental illness. That’s where curiosity comes in. You can achieve a better understanding and more empathy for what someone is experiencing if you have a genuine interest in what they are going through. Ask questions. Do research and read about their issue. Try to avoid making assumptions and, instead, observe. Look for the subtle or obvious ways that the person’s mental illness creeps into their life. Asking questions goes a long way because even two people with the same psychiatric disorder can have two very different experiences with it.
And there you have them. The 4 Cs of supporting someone with mental illness. If two of these look familiar, that’s because I mentioned them in one of my weekly emails that I send out each Monday. If you’ve like more quick content (like mini blog posts) to start your week, please sign up!