Last month (May) was mental health awareness month. As a mental health counselor, it’d be crazy for me not to do a post on this topic. Unfortunately, when it comes to mental health, it’s a topic that no one wants to talk about. There’s a lot of stigma and shame surrounding it, but that’s exactly why we have to talk about it.
Too many people suffer in silence because they are afraid to tell anyone that they have thoughts of hurting themselves or are on the verge of a panic attack whenever they have to interact with a group of people.
They fear the judgment and looks they may get from people if they knew about their illness. So instead of speaking up many withdraw, shut down, and/or use alcohol, drugs, or other addictions as a means of coping.
But the more we talk about mental health, the more we take away the stigma and shame. Though it’s not enough to talk about mental health, we need to be better educated on how to talk to and treat those around us that do struggle with a mental illness. Our comments—though they may be unintentional—can be hurtful to someone struggling with this.
So in this post, I’m going to go over the do’s and don’ts of interacting with someone with a mental health issue.
Things to Do:
1. Be Patient & Willing to Listen
A good place to start is just to listen to them. When I say listen to them, I mean really listen. Not thinking about what you’re going to say or how you should respond to them, just listen. They need to feel like they’re being heard.
If they need to cry, let them cry. Be patient and don’t assume there’s anything you need to do. A lot of times people get uncomfortable when others are crying and will want to do something or say something to “help” them feel better. I put “help” in quotations because really when someone does this, it’s to make themselves feel better not the other person. No one likes to feel helpless, but that’s the feeling we sometimes get when someone is crying, and there’s nothing we can do.
2. Ask What They Need
Be willing to ask what you can do to support them. Sometimes they may not know what they need, but sometimes they do. Maybe it’s just someone to listen to them; maybe it’s someone who will encourage them to get out of bed and do things, maybe they need help with accountability. Whatever it is, ask and do not assume you know what they need.
3. Set Boundaries
Just because someone has a mental illness does not mean you have to let them walk all over your boundaries. Boundaries are meant to keep you safe physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Boundaries will look different for everyone, especially depending on the type of mental illness it is.
It might mean not loaning money to someone you know is in active addiction or setting boundaries to protect yourself against their abuse. Either way, make sure you set boundaries and are clear about them. Explain the consequences of violating the boundary.
Also be sure to follow through on your boundary. It’s really easy to make a boundary, but it’s a whole other thing to follow through with the consequences. Don’t set consequences you know you can’t or won’t follow through with.
For instance, if you tell your sister that you’ll cut off your relationship with her if she continues to berate you than you better be prepared to follow through on that boundary, otherwise don’t set it.
4. Love Them Like Jesus
Sometimes it can be tough loving someone with a mental illness. Sometimes it takes a lot of patience and grace, and only Christ’s strength can help us with this.
About a year ago, I worked with a client who had traits of Schizophrenia and had paranoid delusions. This client had a LOT of behavior issues, and at times I thought he’d drive me crazy.
But one day as I took a walk around my neighborhood, I was listening to the Casting Crowns station on Pandora, and I started thinking about this client.
I was praying and asking God what to do with this client when God’s response came through in a song. The chorus of Love Them Like Jesus by Casting Crowns began playing.
One thing I will admit is I am nowhere near perfect. I’m not always as kind and gracious as I’d like to be, and while I am pretty patient, there’s a limit to even my patience.
So when I heard God’s response, I’ll be honest my first thought was “really Lord? You do know I’m NOT Jesus right?”
Now, of course, God knows I’m not Jesus and will never in this life be perfect like Him, but He still calls me to love others the way Jesus did. So I started praying for this client and asking God to give me a lot more patience and grace as I worked with him.
I know sometimes it seems like some people are tough to love but we can all be difficult to love at times, and yet God still loves us the same. If we’re willing to obey Him, He gives us the strength to love others as Jesus does.
5. Do Your Homework
If you have a loved one who struggles with a mental illness and you want to be able to support them and “love them like Jesus,” then you need to do your homework about that mental illness. Learn about the signs and symptoms, so you know what to expect and how to help. For instance, someone with a Bipolar disorder who is in the manic stage tends to be more impulsive and may make risky decisions without fully thinking things through. Knowing this may help you to learn how to best help them during this stage.
Things To Avoid:
1. Don’t Tip Toe Around Them
Sometimes people just don’t know what to say or how to respond to someone with a mental illness and they end up taking things to an extreme. They may avoid certain topics in order to keep from “triggering” them or they start treating them like a fragile doll about to break, constantly asking if they’re Ok. Stop doing this! They are not China dolls that will shatter if you say one wrong word. Give them more credit than that, people are a lot more resilient than we think.
2. It’s Not Just About Prayer
One thing that can be extremely frustrating for someone with a mental illness is being told they just need to pray for healing. I 100% believe in the power of prayer, however we can pray about something our entire lives and never get the answer we want from God. What Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12 reminds us of this. I like how the message version puts it. He says:
“Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.”
Sometimes God does and will heal us from our afflictions, but sometimes he allows us to live our whole lives with our limitations. I think He does this so we never forget our need for Him and we learn to lean on His strength not our own.
3. Avoid Unsolicited Advice
Do not go around giving advice on what to do or how to cope with a mental illness. Even with good intentions, it can sometimes make things worse. Even counselors are not supposed to give advice. That may seem shocking cause a lot of people think that’s what a counselor’s job is, to give advice. The first thing you learn when you go to school for counseling is NEVER give clients advice.
One, even as counselors we can’t assume we know what’s best for the client better than the client themselves and by giving advice, we may be unintentionally imposing our values onto the client, which of course is a big no-no.
Two, if we give advice and they take it and something goes wrong, or it causes more harm, you could be looking at a lawsuit. That’s why treatment facilities always have a consent to treat form that clients fill out before any treatment begins.
Three, giving advice fosters dependence. Instead of the person learning to solve a problem on their own, they may start to continually look to you for advice.
If you’ve ever been in counseling before (and you’ve had a good counselor) you’ll probably notice they listen way more than they talk. They may ask you a lot of questions to help you get to the root of the issue and come up with changes you want to make rather than telling you what you need to change or work on or how to do it. Now I have had situations where people will ask what would I do in this situation (and I have done this to my counselor as well) and in this case I would share with them what I would do but again you have to be very careful about giving advice. A good rule of thumb, just don’t do it.
4. Avoid Condescending or Judgmental Comments
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. No one likes to feel judged or put down, especially due to an illness that they can’t control anyway. And no, it’s not something they can control despite what some people may believe. Telling someone with anxiety disorder to “just stop worrying about things” is not going to help get rid of their anxiety. Sometimes with mental illness, it comes down to a chemical imbalance in the brain, and they can’t control that any more than I can control my muscle weakness due to having Spinal Muscular Atrophy. So watch what you say and avoid judgemental comments.
5. Don’t Be Careless With Your Words
This should come as an obvious, but I realize it may not for some people, avoid using words like “crazy” or “nuts” when discussing someone with a mental illness. Likewise, avoid phrases like “can’t you just get over it?” This sends a message of judgment and being superior.
Words are powerful. Words have the power to lift someone up or tear them down. Let me break through a massive lie for you right now. The saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” is probably the biggest lie out there when it comes to our words.
If words can never hurt us, we wouldn’t have 14-year-old girls starving themselves to death to try to look like what society tells us they should. If words couldn’t hurt us, then we wouldn’t have high school kids contemplating suicide because of the taunts and bullying they get for being different. If words couldn’t hurt us, I wouldn’t be working with clients struggling with addiction for years because everyone in their life told them they were worthless so they turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.
They have power whether you are the CEO of a major company or the janitor at that company. Sometimes people mistakenly think that because you’re not in a position of authority or you don’t have a lot of people looking up to you and following you, then your words are no big deal, they don’t matter, and you can say pretty much anything you want. But your words ARE powerful, my words ARE powerful, and we all need to decide how we’re going to exercise that power. Are we going to lift others up or tear them down?
Not to get super cheesy right now but I do love quotes and to quote Uncle Ben (Spider-man): “With great power comes great responsibility.” So how will you exercise that power?
So to recap, we have to talk about mental health to break through the stigma and shame. But more than just talking about it, we have to learn how to better interact with others struggling with a mental illness. This will help break the stigma and shame far faster than just talking about it alone. So don’t forget the do’s and don’ts of interacting with someone with a mental illness.
- Be patient and willing to listen
- Ask what they need
- Set boundaries
- Love them like Jesus
- Do your homework
- Tiptoe around them
- Say they just need to pray for healing
- Give unsolicited advice
- Make condescending or Judgmental comments
- Be careless with your words
I really hope this post will help you connect and empathize more with loved ones suffering from mental illness and help begin to break the stigma and shame tied to mental illness. For more information and resources, you can visit psychologytoday.com, nami.org, or samhsa.gov.