Types of Support People with Mental Health Problems Might Need

“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.

 

Emotional support

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. 

 

Practical support

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.

 

Financial support

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. 

 

Advocacy

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.

7 Ways to Deal with Anxiety When You Are Getting Out More

Recovering from anxiety enough to get out more and do more activities presents a paradox: you feel more anxious when you are pushing yourself to do something different. It is tempting to give up and go home. However, the only way to move past anxiety is to face it head on. These tips and techniques are for anyone who is trying to push his/her boundaries, but finds anxiety gets in the way.

1. Control your breathing — before you get too anxious

There are lots of breathing exercises which are said to help anxiety, so it’s worth experimenting to find out which work best for you. In my experience, the main criterion for choosing a particular technique is convenience. Most of the breathing exercises I have come across are effective, but what makes a difference for me is finding one I can do easily. I like counting breaths because it’s easy to remember what to do and I can do it without anyone else being able to tell what I’m doing. My favourite is 7-7-11 breathing: in for 7 counts, hold for 7 and exhale for 11.

The key to using breathing exercises effectively is to practice them when you are not feeling anxious. Start doing them when you are at home and feeling comfortable. Practice until it feels natural. Don’t wait to try a breathing exercise until you are freaking out — it’s bound to feel weird when you have never done it before.

When you are accustomed to using a particular technique, you can use it when you feel anxious. The trick is to start controlling your breathing as soon as you begin to feel anxious. Don’t wait until you are heading for a full-on panic attack: do your preferred breathing exercise  when you are a bit jittery and it can prevent your anxiety from escalating.

2. Leave the room

If your anxiety is getting worse despite your best efforts, exit the situation. Go to the toilet or out for some fresh air. Give yourself time and space to calm down.

Most of the time, nobody will notice your absences. If they do and you are uncomfortable with explaining that you feel anxious, just say you needed to cool off or have a bit of a headache. Don’t make a big deal out of it and no one else will.

Actually, a lot of people regularly leave social situations for a break — and for a variety of reasons. Some just need to be alone for a while and away from the noise. It’s fine; it’s normal.

3. Tell people you feel anxious

I have had a lot of success with this trick, partly because it means I no longer worry about whether everyone can tell I’m anxious. How much you say is up to you — I have previously explained that I have bad anxiety, but nowadays I’m more likely to say I feel a bit nervous. It’s up to you. Most people will be understanding (and even those who can’t empathise won’t berate you) and help to put you at ease.

If you are in a situation where elaborating on your anxiety can help, do so. It’s okay to say ‘when I get anxious I hate being fussed over, so don’t be offended if I need to be alone.’ In fact, it pre-empts issues which may arise. I recently had to explain to my gym instructor that when I get out of breath my anxiety can kick in, so when I stop exercising to control my breath I’m not having an asthma attack or anything. The result: I feel less self-conscious when I need to take a break and my gym instructor knows I don’t require medical attention.

4. Take a friend along with you

There is no shame with having someone there for moral support. I do modern jive classes with a friend — something I would probably have never gotten around to by myself. Friends like to help and will be flattered to be asked. Taking  a friend for the first couple of times you go somewhere new can help you to feel confident enough to go alone in future, so it doesn’t need to be a big commitment for them — you can use them as a stepping stone.

Give your friend guidelines before they accompany you — do you expect them to sit beside you all night or would you prefer to spend a proportion of the time building your solo social skills? Would you be pleased or terrified if they introduced you to people? Do you prefer your friend to order from the bar rather than get tongue tied yourself? Often, a close friend will naturally know how you wish to proceed, but discussing guidelines can help you to feel more at ease and lets your friend know if you plan to experiment with pushing your boundaries.

5. Try essential oils — or perfume

Having some lavender oil on a tissue available takes the edge off my anxiety. Apart from its relaxing properties, focusing on a sense which often gets overlooked (unlike sight and hearing) helps me to be more mindful. It forces me to get out of my head, however briefly.

Wearing perfume I love helps me feel more confident and less anxious. I have no idea whether my favourite scents have any relaxation properties and it doesn’t matter: it helps me stay grounded and reminds me of all the great times I have had when wearing that particular perfume. It’s a subtle trick, too — it took me years to realise that my perfume helps me feel less anxious!

6. Focus on other people, not your anxious thoughts

Watch other peoole, listen to them, pay attention. As long as you are doing this, you aren’t worrying about yourself. As soon as you are in a new situation, look for people you can focus on without drawing attention or seeming odd. In classes, this is obviously the teacher/instructor. People dancing, singing karaoke or otherwise performing are great to watch, too. If there are several people between whom you can divide your attention, that’s even better.

Truth is, unless you are extremely creepy and obvious, people tend not to notice being watched. Most of them are too busy chatting, having fun or worrying about themselves. The advanced version of this (which I’m trying to work towards) is to engage in conversation and really listen to other people. Find out three interesting things about each person you meet. Keep a list (mental or literal) of fun questions and conversation starters. Just keep your attention on others, not your mental chatter.

7. Have an escape plan

If all else fails, what will you do? Knowing how you would leave a situation helps you to feel more confident and secure — regardless of whether you put the plan into action. Who could you call to pick you up? Where could you walk to? Have you got money available in case you need to take a taxi?

Even noting the exits can help — when I know the location of the nearest door, I can visualise walking out of the room and it emphasises the fact that I have options. I don’t have to succumb to anxiety, because I know I can walk away if it all gets too much.

Leaving earlier than planned isn’t ideal, but don’t berate yourself if it’s necessary. Tackling anxiety isn’t easy and you deserve credit for getting outside your comfort zone. Leaving an unfamiliar situation isn’t failure — it’s a successful attempt to expand your boundaries and when you keep expanding your boundaries, your anxiety gets easier to control.

 

 

Wednesday Recommendation: Brené Brown

I was a little sceptical when I bought Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. After years of being a perfectionist, having permission to be myself was something I regarded with suspicion. However, I liked the idea of embracing my imperfections — even if I didn’t think it would work.

I’m glad I put my scepticism aside. Brown not only reminded me that I am human and cannot be perfect, but taught me about the advantages of being imperfect. The book is split into “guideposts” which explain how to cultivate qualities like self-compassion, resilience and creativity. There is a lot to inspire even the most trenchant perfectionist!

Brown is my kind of self-help author: she writes with empathy and openness, but doesn’t slip into sentimentality. She is motivating but realistic. She addresses both the meaty issues and aspects of wellbeing that some people tend to dismiss, like paying attention netion to your intuition.

I plan to read more of Brown’s books, but in the meantime I will keep re-reading The Gifts of Imperfection and try to implement her advice. However, simply reading the book has altered my mindset and made me more forgiving of my failings and imperfections.

See Brené Brown’s website brenebrown.com for more information.

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 6: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is an exploration of the state of flow, which occurs when you are challenged by an activity but feel skilled enough to negotiate the tasks involved without arousing anxiety. Flow is most easily recognised by its characteristic effect: a feeling of timelessness. It’s difficult to describe, but everybody has experienced flow. Think about all the times you have been lost in an activity, unaware of anything else around you except what the activity requires.

A flow state can be achieved while performing a wide variety of activities. Reading and writing are common flow activities for me, but I can also achieve the state while running, doing Sudoku puzzles and drawing. Other people have experienced flow through activities such as gardening, horse riding, wood carving, debating, dancing, knitting, cooking, rock climbing… The list is extensive! The main distinction between flow activities and leisure activities which don’t induce a state of flow is that the former involves a high level of engagement, whereas the latter may be a largely passive experience. For example: when you are watching a film which challenges you intellectually so that you are constantly interpreting the images and sound, you may enter a state of flow. In contrast, if you are watching a film which is enjoyable but not stimulating, you may experience pleasure but you won’t experience flow.

Flow explains the intricacies of the flow state, backed up by Csikszentmihalyi’s research, and provides instruction for cultivating flow. People who experience more flow in their lives are happier. In addition to flow being an enjoyable and satisfying state in itself, flow activities tend to result in achievements and improved skills. The activities which are most conducive to flow tend to be personal passions, which help to create meaning in life. By cultivating flow, you will improve multiple aspects of your life.

Part of the beauty of flow is that it’s nothing new and anyone can achieve a flow state, but Csikszentmihalyi’s book acts as a catalyst. It’s useful for people with mental health problems, especially depression, who have lost their sense of purpose and gain less joy from life than they would like. I first read it during a challenging point in my life and I realised that flow could offer a way out; cultivating flow became part of my treatment plan. Flow activities removed me from the misery I was experiencing and helped me, over a long period of time, find meaning in my life.

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

Make Kindness Your Superpower

The power of kindness is often experienced, but under-acknowledged. We tend to think of kindness as something that might brighten our day, but has limited impact on our lives. Wrong! Kindness can have huge effects: in the darkness of mental illness it can provide a light to help us find our way out. Performing acts of kindness can also help mental health problems, enabling us to reconnect with other people. Kindness can transform lives in small ways and big – look at the various charities who have provided people with clean water, basic healthcare, education, etc. And the best thing about kindness is that it benefits both the recipient and the person performing kind acts.

That’s why I want to invite you to make kindness your superpower. Use it to improve your life and the whole world.

Random acts of kindness have attracted a lot of attention over the past 10 years or so, celebrated for their eccentricity as much as their effects, but I prefer targeted acts of kindness. Targeted acts of kindness have more inherent meaning because they involve strong feelings about the recipient and/or the specific act of kindness. You might want to treat a friend who has stuck with you through the hard times, or who is going through a hard time herself. Perhaps you decide to donate to Amnesty International because you are passionate about human rights. Maybe you know a teenage boy who is always helping others and want to help him achieve one of his own goals. Targeted acts of kindness might not have the tabloid appeal of random acts of kindness, but I believe they are infinitely more awesome.

If we make kindness our superpower we can change the world, but we all have to start with a single person: you, yourself. It makes sense when you think about it – how can you access the full power of a value if you refuse to let it radiate in all directions, including inwards? When you are kind to yourself, you increase your ability to be kind to others. How many more acts of kindness could you perform if you look after yourself instead of beating yourself up all the time? How much more effort could you put into being kind to others when you gain the energy that comes from being kind to yourself?

Another awesome thing about targeted acts of kindness: they are accessible. Anyone can begin by doing something for a friend or loved one. Even if you are unable to leave the house, you can send an email to a friend thanking them for their support. You can make lunch for your parents if you can’t afford to treat them to dinner at a top restaurant. If you’re short on time, it takes seconds to send a charity donation via text message. Targeted acts of kindness cannot be quantified; when you are depressed, cooking dinner for someone is a massive act of kindness and the recipient will realise this, even if it seems insignificant to an outsider. A cheap surprise gift from a friend is more valuable than an expensive birthday present because it shows that your friend is thinking about you, without being prompted by a special occasion. Do whatever you can and remember that acts of kindness, in whatever form, are always important and effective.

So venture forth and have fun with your new superpower. Think of creative ways you can help someone achieve their dream. Aim to target acts of kindness at as many people as you can in a single day – then try to beat your record on another day. Shower a single person with kindness. Form a league of kindness superheroes with your friends or colleagues and use your combined power to bombard a local neighbourhood or a faraway nation with kindness. Don’t worry if you can’t do something “big” – just do whatever you can and let us know about it in the comments.

How to Talk About Your Mental Illness

It’s important for everyone to talk about mental health. Discussing mental illness without shame is vital if we are to break down the stigma. The trouble is, talking about mental health problems is difficult – especially if it seems you are the only one talking. Here are some tips to help your conversations flow a little more easily:

  • Choose the right audience. Some people don’t want to listen to you and aren’t worth the effort. They have their reasons for not wanting to hear about your mental illness – they might be scared of what they will hear (i.e. that they could easily become mentally ill, too) or they could just be selfish and nasty. These are not good reasons, but don’t bother wasting your breath by telling them so. Unless you enjoy arguments, in which case go ahead!
  • Be honest but don’t reveal more than you are comfortable revealing. You have a right to privacy and can talk about your mental health without going into all the gory details. You don’t need to explain your issues and it probably isn’t appropriate to, unless you are talking to close friends.
  • Take your time. Such an important topic deserves to have time taken over it, so don’t rush. Give yourself time to think about what you want to say and how to express it in the right words.
  • Be open about your struggles. It doesn’t mean you are seeking pity or attention. Be matter of fact about the worst times, if it helps, but don’t keep quiet about them just because people might think you are looking for sympathy.
  • Don’t be afraid to have a sense of humour. Laughing about the awful things in life can be empowering. I once read (sorry, but I can’t remember where) that Mel Brooks thought he had a duty to make fun of subjects like racism and Nazism because it diminished them and took away their power. Let’s do the same with mental illness: you can still acknowledge its devastating effects while poking fun at the ridiculous aspects. I do.
  • Use analogies and metaphors to describe, explain and illustrate your points. Writers use devices like simile, imagery and metaphor to help people relate to what they are talking about. You can help people relate to your experiences in similar ways. It’s useful to draw such comparisons when dealing with something as complex and variable as mental illness.
  • Don’t stereotype yourself or others. Laugh at yourself by all means, but you do nobody any favours if you constantly refer to yourself as ‘crazy’ and use your mental illness as an excuse to behave however you wish. It’s also unhelpful to rank mental illnesses or pit them against each other; unfortunately, I have heard people say things like ‘at least I don’t have schizophrenia – those people are really mental’ and ‘she only has depression, not something serious like a personality disorder.’ Talking in such a way does not break down the stigma surrounding mental illness: it strengthens it.

 

10 Simple Ways to Start Taking Care of Yourself

  1. Take your medication. Even if you are sceptical about how effective it is, give medication a shot if you been prescribed some. Never stop taking it or adjust the dose without supervision from your doctor. If you have trouble remembering to take it, keep it in a visible place (out of the reach of any children or pets) and next to a calendar you can cross off.

 

  1. Eat breakfast. The more nutritious, the better, but eating anything is better than skipping breakfast. It helps you to wake up and prepare for the day ahead. It also sets a precedent: when you start the day with a caring gesture, you are more likely to continue in the same vein.

 

  1. Apply body lotion. This sounds random, but it helps you to reconnect with your body. I credit this habit with helping me improve my health and fitness over the past couple of years. It made me aware of the mind-body connection and enabled me to start appreciating my body after years of self-hatred and abuse.

 

  1. Stretch. You don’t have to do hours of yoga (though you can if you want): just stretch a few times a day. I do it while watching TV. Try to stretch your whole body and never force the stretch – slight discomfort is normal, pain is not. I find stretching good for de-stressing and bringing me back into the moment.

 

  1. Eat a piece of fruit. Healthy eating often falls by the wayside when you have mental health problems. Eating a single piece of fruit takes little effort and reminds you of the importance of taking care of yourself. Even if the rest of your diet is a disaster zone, you will have done one thing to nourish your body.

 

  1. Find 3 things to be grateful for. At first, this is very difficult. The only ideas you come up with will seem stupid. But there are no stupid answers and everyone can find 3 little things for which to be grateful. Mine have included the sun shining, my dog, watching a TV programme, chocolate, a cup of tea, listening to my favourite song and getting a text message from a friend. Even when you find ‘bigger’ things to be thankful for, you will often find that the ‘little’ things give you just as much pleasure.

 

  1. Open a window. You might feel like shutting yourself away and that’s fine, but opening a window gives your home an airing and helps it feel less stale. It also connects you to the outside world in a small way, which reminds you that you are part of the world.

 

  1. Stroke an animal. This is tricky if you don’t have a pet, but you can borrow one from a friend or neighbour. Or find a friendly cat in the street. Stroking animals has proven to be beneficial for mental health. It feels good to give attention to another being – and to receive their attention and gratitude in return.

 

  1. Buy some flowers. A cheap bunch of seasonal blooms is perfect because they usually have better scents than expensive flowers. They add a little cheer to your home and brightness to your life, reminding you that there is beauty in the world.

 

  1. Contemplate a piece of art. A favourite painting or poem is ideal for this, but music, films, sculpture and stories also work well. Art is all about connecting with other people – the artist(s), the subject(s), your fellow appreciators and the world in general. Art has a deep beauty that resonates; it’s not just about aesthetics, it’s also about the concepts at its heart.

Connecting Is Essential – Even When it Feels Impossible

Making connections is part of the human experience; we must have connections in order to survive. As soon as we are born, we are reliant on other people to provide us with food and shelter. Most of what we learn is taught to us by family, friends and professionals. Without connections, we have nothing. Life is empty when there is nobody with whom to share your life.

Mental illness attacks these connections. It can convince us that nobody really cares, even as friends and family struggle to stay in touch. Mental health problems can make us feel isolated, so we avoid contact with other people in the belief that they won’t understand. Unfortunately, there is truth in this preconception and we cling to that truth in order to convince ourselves that all of our other assumptions are correct – that nobody loves us; that our friends would be better off without us; that people aren’t interested in our lives. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: we feel isolated, so we isolate ourselves, which makes us isolated.

A lot of people are unable to cope with others’ mental health issues. They accuse us of being weak or fakers. They say we will be cured if we just go for a walk or find a partner. Some of these people might be nasty and spiteful, but the majority are ignorant. I think some people hold onto ridiculous beliefs about mental illness because it shields them from the truth: that anyone can become mentally ill at any time – including themselves. It’s easier to pretend that people with mental health problems are different, even subhuman, than to admit their own vulnerability.

But whatever reactions we encounter and however we dismantle our own connections, making connections is essential – especially if we hope to cope with or recover from our mental illness. It can be difficult, but it’s vital to start making connections as soon as you can and in any way that you can. It could be simply reading about other people with mental health problems, whether in memoirs and autobiographies or on blogs, social networks and internet forums. When you don’t feel like seeing your friends, you could try to email or text them. You might join a support group, either online or in person. It doesn’t matter if the connections seem tenuous or if you make very few connections; you are strengthening your network, which will help you.

When you feel well enough, you could make connections through classes and volunteer work. You may try online dating (as a couple of my friends with mental health problems have – one of whom married a man she met on a dating website!) or joining a club. You might write a blog and use it to reach out to people in similar situations to your own…

When making connections feels impossible, it is vital to try to make connections because that is how you can improve your mental health. Like many strategies for improving mental health, it’s easier said than done. In the first instance, the most important connection you can make is with your doctor – or someone who will take you to see your doctor – who can prescribe treatments that can get you to the point where you are able to start making more connections. Reach out – as soon as you feel able to reach out – and begin to form or strengthen connections.