Breaking the Silence: What to Say When Your Loved One Has a Mental Illness

Mental illness can be hard to talk about. The stigma surrounding psychiatric conditions can make even the most outgoing and talkative amongst us turn silent for fear of judgment. However, people suffering from mental health disorders aren’t the only ones who can find it difficult to discuss the topic of mental illness; many friends and family members of those living with mental illness can find themselves at a loss for words, especially if this is the first time they’re dealing with the topic of mental health. The following are some ideas for how you can begin a conversation with your loved one that recognizes their struggles and offers real, meaningful support to nourish both them as an individual and the bond between you.

Do Say: Thank You for Telling Me

Disclosing a mental illness can be a profound act of trust and vulnerability. While some people are very comfortable telling others that they suffer from a mental health disorder, for many, the stigma of psychiatric conditions makes disclosure a high stakes bet. Chances are that your loved one has put serious thought into telling you about their disorder and it’s imperative that you honor their disclosure. Let them know that telling you was the right thing to do and that you recognize and appreciate the courage of their act.

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Do Say: How Are You Feeling?

Far too often, people with mental illness feel that they must hide what they are experiencing for fear of making others uncomfortable. By honestly asking how someone is feeling, you can create a space for them to verbalize their feelings in which they will feel safe and supported. Simply being able to express their thoughts, fears, anxieties, and concerns can be deeply relieving and serve to strengthen their understanding of themselves and your understanding of their situation.

Don’t Say: I Know How You’re Feeling

Trying to relate your own experiences to those of a person struggling with a mental health disorder is a natural and normal thing to do; it’s how humans try to make sense of others’ experiences and find connections to the unfamiliar. Often it is tempting to tell someone that you understanding what they are going through. But however well-intentioned, the fact is, unless you too struggle with mental illness, you don’t know what it’s like and such a statement can be interpreted as minimizing what someone is going through.

Do Say: What Can I Do to Help?

Mental illness can often leave people with significant unmet emotional and practical needs and their actual needs may be quite different than what you would expect. The best way to both let someone know you care about them and help them in a way that is meaningful to them is to ask what they need. Whether they just want someone to listen, some company to combat loneliness, or help with everyday activities compromised by their illness, like grocery shopping or walking their dog, even the most seemingly simple things can make a big difference. Keep in mind that these needs may vary over time as symptoms and the severity of the illness change, so keep asking.

Do Say: You Will Get Through This

Hope is often one of the first things to go when mental illness strikes and many people believe they will never feel okay again. Even if glimmers of hope exist, the road to recovery may be long and the journey can feel exhausting. By expressing your own faith that they will regain stability and joy, you are reminding them of your own trust in their resiliency, abilities, and resourcefulness, as well as the possibilities of treatment and, in doing so, you may begin to rekindle their own sense of hope. Simply having someone else believe in you can be an incredibly powerful thing.

Do Say: You Are Important to Me

It is common for people who are struggling with psychological distress to feel that they are no longer wanted by or valuable to others, particularly if their illness has weakened social connections and led to isolation. The functional limitations and emotional disturbances resulting from many mental health disorders can cause many people to see themselves as burdens and liabilities, even and perhaps especially to those closest to them, deteriorating their confidence and self-esteem. Make sure they know that they are important to you; they are loved and cherished and having a mental illness doesn’t change that fact. Let them know how having them in your life brings you richness and joy and that you will be there for them through this illness. While it may be hard for them to consciously recognize their own value, your support can help.

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Maybe Say: Have You Tried ….?

One of our most natural instincts as humans is to want to relieve those we love of their suffering and many people feel the overwhelming desire to offer solutions when someone expresses psychological distress. However, finding relief from mental illness is often a complex process that involves sustained medical interventions and deeply personal recovery work. As such, suggestions regarding unproven treatment methods or lifestyle changes are often, as Nichole Howson points out, tantamount to saying, “Have you tried waving a wand and making it all disappear?” On the other hand, truly informed advice regarding medically sound, evidence-based treatment can sometimes be extraordinarily helpful. Often people with mental illness feel lost and don’t know where to begin to look for help. In other cases, even those with extensive experience with mental health treatment find themselves without relief from distressing symptoms. By educating yourself regarding treatment options, you can make meaningful suggestions that guide your loved one toward the care they need to begin healing.

If your family member is suffering from a mental health disorder and has questions about treatment options, we invite you to contact Bridges to Recovery at any time to find out more about the resources available to help them move toward restored health and revitalization of mind, body, and spirit. We are committed to helping all people with mental illness find relief from psychological pain and to connecting families with the services, knowledge, and support they need to move forward.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people living with mental health disorders, co-occurring substance use disorders, and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward wellness.