Here’s How To Show Empathy To People With Mental Health Illness

We all have mental health. It’s something we all have to take care of. It impacts everyone.

Mental health is something we all have to deal with throughout our lives; whether we come up against mental illness, have to cope with grief, or even just need to get through work-related stress.

Mental Health relates to how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices, as mental health is very important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence, through to adulthood.” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2014)

There is a stigma that people with mental health problems which then compounds into mental disorder, face from day to day.

That stigma is known to get in the way of them seeking out effective treatment.

Lagos-based Psychiatrist, Dr Maymunah Kadiri, in a not so recent interview with City People once stated that at least one-in-four Nigerians have mental health issues.

What if that one person was your brother or sister or wife or husband or friend or colleague?

How would you help them?

Mental health illness is listed as a non communicable disease, which means that it is meant to be treated like all other non communicable diseases like diabetes or hypertension.

What they need from their peers is support and empathy. There is need for increased mental health education and services, dismissive attitudes towards people with mental disorders also need to change.

People with mental disorders must deal with all sorts of uninformed (and unsolicited) opinions on their conditions.

Throwing around words like “Happiness is a choice” without realizing that there is a lot that stands in the way of a mentally ill person being able to “choose” happiness.

Another challenging factor in understanding people with mental disorders is the fact that you cannot ‘see’ their condition like you would with people dealing with diabetes or malaria, for example.

The bottom line is that these are medical conditions that require medical solutions.

What follows is a general guide for engaging with a friend or family member with a mental disorder. This is culled from a number of sources such as Ainsley and Matthew Johnstone’s “Living With A Black Dog,” CNN, the World Health Organization’s as well as some personal experiences.

This is in the hopes that together we can work to share the burden of people around us suffering from mental disorders.

1. Acknowledge and understand the mental disorder.

First thing’s first, a mental disorder is as real as any other disorder or illness. Mental health comes with a lot of stigma because people assume that it’s all in your head; of course it is, but that doesn’t make it any less legitimate.

It helps to read up a little on the disorder beforehand — its manifestations and possible means to manage it. It’s crucial to go into the conversation with a clear acknowledgment that what they’re going through is real and shouldn’t be discredited.

2. Don’t treat them like their problems are small.

When you’re mentally ill, one of the worst things to hear is that “There are children starving out there, so be thankful for what you have.”

Trying to put everyone’s suffering against a yardstick isn’t just insensitive; it’s unproductive.

Whoever you’re talking to already knows there are people suffering somewhere else in the world. They know people are dying. Bringing up these hard truths doesn’t make them any less depressed.

Don’t make them feel that because “worse things are happening,” their suffering is invalid. A mental disorder like depression feels so overwhelming as it is; it need not be compounded by guilt.

3. Sometimes you just need to listen.

When someone opens up about a problem, we can be quick to offer solutions. “Maybe you should change your diet!” “Or pray more!” “Or maybe you should cut those people out of your life!” Remember that you’re up against a disorder. Grasp as you may for solutions, there’s no quick fix for it.

Sometimes all a person needs is someone to listen to all the dark thoughts in their heads. They need a space that’s free of judgment where they can just make sense of what they’re feeling. It can be enough to have a shoulder to cry on through a major episode. It’s also incredibly helpful to discuss and analyze the problem with them. Ask them questions like: “What made you feel that way?” “In what situations does your disorder manifest?” “What are the things that make you feel better?”

If they’re able to articulate the problem, it becomes easier for them to break it down and get through it. It may also help to see a counselor or psychotherapist. Some of these thoughts can be overwhelming but they lose some of their power when you’re able to put them into words.

4. Don’t wait for them to open up to you. Make the first call.

Part of having a mental disorder is constantly fearing the judgment of others, or worrying that you’d be a burden to other people if you opened up to them.

You need to be the one to check in on them periodically without being too invasive. Ask them how they’re feeling. Talk to them about their day. Send them memes (not kidding, this is a lifesaver). It matters for them to know there’s someone looking out for them and that they have a safe space to open up.

5. Encourage and empower them to make decisions for themselves.

People with mental disorders often find it hard to see the good in themselves. It helps to continually point out good things about them and good things they’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

Encourage them as well to explore ways to manage their disorder. There’s a wide range of possible treatments from medication to cognitive behavioral therapy. These can be supplemented with personal means of self-care such as sports, meditation or simply taking time out for themselves.

The key here is talking them through their options, but allowing them their own agency. Remember that you can offer companionship, pivotal advice and essential support, but ultimately, how they move forward is their own choice.

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