“How can I help when your mental health is bad?”
I have been asked this question a couple of times recently and didn’t really know how to answer, except to say that I always appreciate someone listening to me and checking in to ask how I am. It made me think about the different types of support I have received and/or wanted over the years I have experienced mental illness.
Here is a brief guide to the types of support you could provide to someone with mental health problems. Your ability to give different types of support will depend on your own circumstances and relationship with the person who has mental health issues. I’m not saying that everybody should aim to supply every type of support to everyone they know who is mentally ill — that would be impossible and inappropriate — but if you are wondering how you can help, here are some ideas.
I believe this is the most important type of support, because it enables people with mental health problems to help themselves. It’s easier to try to solve your problems when you feel supported. Emotional support also prevents isolation, which perpetuates mental health issues.
Defining emotional support is difficult, as it can include various elements and different people prefer different types of emotional support. At its core, emotional support is about kindness, compassion and empathy. It involves listening to the person with mental health problems and trying to understand how they are feeling.
The key thing to remember is that providing emotional support can be very simple. A text saying “thinking of you” means a lot. Spending time with the person with mental health problems, whether doing an activity or just chatting, helps, too. Asking how they are feeling and listening without judging, criticising or telling them what they “should” be doing makes a huge difference.
At its heart, emotional support is connecting with another person and showing you care.
Mental illness makes it difficult to do things which other people find easy. You can provide practical support by either accompanying the person with mental health problems or doing things for them. Some people will argue that doing things for someone who is mentally ill means you are acting as an enabler, but this is utter nonsense. You wouldn’t hesitate to help someone who is physically ill and cannot do certain things; mental illness is no different.
People need different types of practical support at different points, as their mental health changes and fluctuates. For example, someone might be too ill to buy groceries one month, but well enough the next month to go shopping with a friend. Asking what practical help you can provide is useful, but people with mental health problems are often reluctant to ask for help because they feel like a burden, so try to empathise and anticipate what they might need.
Practical support can include going with people to medical appointments (with their permission, of course!), making phone calls on their behalf and preparing meals for them. Be observant and try to pinpoint areas in which they are struggling.
Mental health problems and money problems often go hand in hand. Taking a lot of time off work or being unable to work and subsisting on benefits usually means your income is very low. In addition, many symptoms of mental illness make managing finances difficult. Sometimes, mental health problems can cause overspending as well. Given this, it’s no surprise that many people with mental health problems get into debt and/or need extra financial support.
The level of financial support you can give depends very much on your own situation and your relationship with the person with mental health problems. If you are able, helping to pay for things or lending money without charging interest can be very helpful and relieve huge burdens. However, helping someone manage their finances can also be very useful — especially as many people with mental health problems can’t face dealing with their financial situation, so tend to ignore the problem as it gets worse.
Money is a sensitive topic at the best of times, so be aware that your offers of help might be refused. While there should be no shame in facing financial difficulties, especially as a result of illness, many people feel ashamed of being poor and in debt. They might (incorrectly) see it as a reflection of their own value and believe they don’t deserve help.
Be sensitive and empathetic when offering financial support. Don’t attach conditions which could put the person with mental health problems under extra pressure. Also consider your own needs: don’t give or lend what you can’t afford to lose.
You can offer support by advocating for someone, fighting on their behalf when mental illness prevents them from fighting for themselves. In my experience, this is particularly valuable when the person with mental health problems is claiming benefits, since the DWP and its associated organisations care more about their targets than the wellbeing of vulnerable people. It’s also helpful in situations where people are trying to secure their legal rights, such as facing discrimination at work.
Advocacy takes many forms and depends on the situation, but can involve contacting people/organisations, filling in forms and logging events. It may necessitate research or following procedures. All of these things are difficult to negotiate when you have mental health problems, so having someone to advocate on your behalf means a lot.
Provide support responsibly
Remember to take care of your own needs when providing support — you will be less able to help anybody if you let your health/finances/relationships/whatever suffer. We have probably all been in situations where we wish we could help more, but damaging your own life doesn’t help anyone in the long term. Also look to your own sources of support, especially emotional support, to help you in supporting someone else.
Even if you can provide nothing but kindness and compassion, it will make a massive difference.