I have been asked by my friends to write an article about how best to support someone through a mental health issue. There is not a one sized fits all answer, due to the fact that every illness and person is unique with their own brain chemistry and life experience. However, I am going to offer a few tips on what you can do if someone is suffering from an anxiety disorder or depression (for this article I am going to leave out other illnesses eg bipolar, schizophrenia, psychosis, addictions but will speak about them at a later date)
So what can you do if your loved one is suffering from an anxiety disorder/ depression?
Anxiety disorders are a group of multi faceted disorders which can include things like generalised anxiety, social anxiety, health anxiety, OCD, PTSD and more. Your loved one may be suffering from lack of sleep, nightmares, inability to sit still, palpitations, racing or obsessive thoughts, panic attacks and hyperventilation. They may feel more on edge, or in the case of OCD- be checking and analysing everything. Anxiety disorders run in certain patterns and all are unique to the individual- what one person with anxiety may have will be different to another, however there are some general patterns to anxiety.
When a person is suffering from anxiety, they may also have physical health symptoms as above due to the increase in adrenaline and the stress hormone, cortisol.
Depression or depressive disorders are sometimes caused due to a chemical imbalance in the brain (not enough seretonin) and can require medication to return the brain to its usual state. Some are a mixture of chemical imbalance and challenging life experiences or brought on from a period of stress eg divorce, moving house, losing a baby, having a baby, being unemployed etc . Symptoms typically can include loss of motivation, feeling tearful, low and hopeless, not wanting to engage socially or be involved with activities one enjoys.
If your loved one is suffering from anxiety or depression the best way you can help is by speaking and interacting with them calmly- not judging them or accusing them of anything bad, but simply being a laid back, supportive friend or partner. If someone can’t socialise, its best to just text once in a while and check up on how they are doing- or send a hand written note or card. Most importantly, do not pressure the person to see you, talk to you or go out.. but just be there for them calmly as a listening ear and encourage them to do small achievable things for themselves.
It is good to encourage your friend to go out with you but not to pressurise. Similarly, getting a bit of fresh air can help. If your friend or loved one is at crisis point ie threatening to take their own life, feeling suicidal, not eating or sleeping and being involved in self harming or risk taking behaviours, it is very important to do the following:
1) If a friend is suicidal, listen to them but do not promise to keep it a secret. You must tell their nearest relative/ best friend/ someone they trust if you believe they are in danger of a suicide attempt or at harm to themselves . Encourage them to see their GP immediately or speak to a help line and the GP will be able to tell you if a psychiatric referral is needed. A psychiatrist and team known as the Crisis Team will then step in to help.
2) If a loved one you live with is suicidal, go with them to the Doctor or get a doctor to come out to you. There is stigma around this BUT if your loved one is really ill and their brain is effectively temporarily ‘broken’ much like a broken leg, it needs fixing. Your loved one needs help and support to recover whether its medication, counselling or more support at home. Do not blame yourself. This is an illness- not something you have done.
Ultimately, be loving, caring and supportive and CALM- however angry or frustrated you feel. Being frustrated to someone who is unwell can cause them to have feelings of guilt, low self esteem or worthlessness which the depression/ anxiety may perpetuate.
Be there as a support and listening ear but make sure you have a break and take time for you too.