*Or sister, mom, dad, best friend, etc.
First of all, take a breath. One of the hardest things for him was living with it alone and then coming to terms with it enough to share it with you. And it may have been hard for you deciding how to respond. That’s okay.
Mental illness can be difficult to define and diagnose, and even more difficult to treat. Chances are, it is confusing for everyone involved. Thankfully, you can help that problem by building open communication with each other about it.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that many families with a member who suffers from mental illness find it hard to keep their relationships strong and vital. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The majority of that separation stems from negative stigmas surrounding mental illness, not the mental illness itself.
Eliminating the Stigma
Here are a few important facts about anxiety and depression that should help alleviate many stigma-related concerns you may have:
- Anxiety is common. In fact, about 18.1 percent of U.S. adults suffer from an anxiety disorder.
- Having an anxiety disorder is not the same as just being anxious. The person affected is battling against reflexive processes in their body that are acting differently than in someone who doesn’t have an anxiety disorder. These fight-or-flight reactions can be terrifying and debilitating, and can’t be changed by a simple shift in attitude.
- Anxiety can be helped. Stress management techniques, therapy, support groups, and medications have all shown to be effective treatment options in many cases.
- Depression is also very common. About 6.7 percent of U.S. adults and 12.5 percent of U.S. adolescents in 2015 had a major depressive episode in the past year.
- Depression is not something we give ourselves. It doesn’t come from spending too much time moping and moaning about life. Oftentimes, it is brought on by trauma or repeated negative experiences. But it can also sneak up on people, causing them to withdraw and live in despair.
- Depression is manageable. Whether it be through exercise, medication, therapy, or a slew of other opportunities, depression can be helped, too.
“Great!” you might say. “This is all well and good, but… What do I do?” I’m glad you asked. I’m hoping that the to-do and to-don’t lists below will help with just such a question.
Dos and Don’ts
The following lists are by no means comprehensive, as everyone experiences mental illness a little differently. However, the items listed are vitally important, and will be helpful in the majority of cases.
- Be understanding. One of the scariest things for them is that their feelings don’t always make sense. Validating (not dismissing) what they’re feeling can go a very long way.
- Let them know you’re available to talk. They may want to talk about their illness, but they might not. In either case, knowing they have a sounding-board can bring them relief all on its own.
- Ask them how they’re feeling. Knowing that they’re under no obligation to answer will help them feel safe, and knowing that you honestly want to hear it will make them feel loved and supported.
- See if they’d like a distraction. It may seem silly, but a diversion can be excellent medicine. Try one of their favorite funny YouTube videos, a french fry run, or playing catch.
- Encourage them. Remind them that while you may not know exactly how they feel right now, you have seen them overcome trials before and you believe in them.
- Avoid or abandon them. The bigger their support net, the more likely they are to function normally.
- Blame them. Mental illness is not the fault of the person who suffers from it any more than a brain tumor might be—and it can be just as devastating.
- Say, “Why don’t you try smiling more?” Chances are, they already try that. And chances are, it doesn’t work. While positive thinking can be of some benefit when dealing with depression, a “fake it till you make it” mentality really only benefits the observers, not the person with the illness.
- Tell them they’re being dramatic. Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses are often caused by hormone imbalances and/or traumatic experiences. We all experience life and emotions differently, and they are dealing with actual fight-or-flight, physiological processes.
- Tell them about all your problems. You may be able to relate to them in some way or another, and they may even ask for you to share. But too much can be overwhelming.
- Get offended or blame yourself. That won’t help, and their condition isn’t your fault. They will probably say things they don’t mean, but remember to give them the benefit of the doubt. Work on being your best self and it will have a positive effect on both of you.
- Give up. At times, your loved one may do things that don’t make sense, or they may say things that scare or upset you. But the more you pull with them, the better things will be.
One of the most important things to remember is that he’s still the same brother you grew up with and love. He’s dealing with an illness and needs your help. Remember that, and your relationship will be as strong as it ever was—and maybe even stronger.
Daniel Moster is an office/IT intern at Noetic Psychiatry, who also occasionally moonlights as a writer, mandolin player, and student of Family Life at Brigham Young University. In his free time, he enjoys collecting hobbies, eating sugary foods, and spending time with his beautiful wife.