How can you help a loved one without it taking a toll on your own mental health?
Recently you’ve noticed something different about your friend. Her moods are darker, she’s regularly canceling plans and the positive, upbeat pal you once knew seems sullen and withdrawn. Or maybe someone at home’s going through a mental health problem and you’ve grown up learning to adapt to their ups and downs. Perhaps it’s your partner and you don’t know how to help them. Or a colleague and you’re worried about overstepping the mark. Whoever in your life is struggling, the truth is that handling someone else’s mental health problem can be a tricky scenario, not just because you don’t necessarily know what to do to try and help them, but because you’re worried about how that added stress will play out in your life too.
“The difficulty in minding someone else’s mental health is that it is an impossible task,” notes Amanda Lynch, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist at Psychotherapy Dublin. “We must change the way in which we look at the mental health of those around us, our family, lovers, friends, because it cannot be dealt with, minded or improved by someone else no matter how much we care for and love the person that is suffering.”
The greatest challenge is to separate ourselves from the notion that we have to fix them, or help them fix themselves. And this is in fact a huge challenge because we live in a society of problem solvers, fixers and solutions and not being able to do these things can be very agonising.
That was certainly true for Ciara, 37, who felt the strain when her brother developed anxiety and depression. “I didn’t know how to reach him at first,” she tells me. “It was hard not knowing what kind of mood he was going to be in and at times I felt so helpless. I just wanted to be able to take his pain away and the thought of him suffering and dealing with something beyond his control killed me. I felt this huge burden of responsibility to him, because I wanted to make him better, without really having the first clue how to do that.”
Ciara’s dilemma is a common one, so, how can you help your loved one through a problem that has no easy solution? “When someone we love is suffering there can be a natural instinct to fix or solve the issue. This is not what is needed for another person’s mental health. The only way for them to work through and learn to cope is for them to do the work themselves,” Amanda clarifies. “Your role can be being there in whatever way you can for them, but not to fix them. This is something that I come across often in life, this demand or sense of responsibility people assume when they see another person suffering. You won’t have the answers and you don’t need to cobble together some. The most effective thing you can do is to listen and be there.”
Quite simply, “let your loved one know you are there to support them,” Amanda instructs. “Listen to what they are saying and encourage them to be curious about what is happening and why. Ultimately encouraging a loved one to engage with a professional, for example, a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist to work towards the root cause of the problem is important but it can take time to get to this stage. Being careful not to badger the person who is suffering is an important thing to pay attention to as well. Therapies can only work best when the individual wants to engage in the process. So encouraging them to speak or just being able to sit with them through the difficult times can be a real lifeline.”
Fair warning though, there are some tactics that should be avoided.
Very simply don’t tell them what to do or how to feel. Avoid saying things like ‘I understand’ or ‘I know how you feel’ because it is impossible to understand or know how another person feels because we all experience life in a completely singular way. Using lines like ‘its not that bad’ can be extremely isolating to a person who is suffering so try to avoid this too.
Ciara eventually found her feet when it came to supporting her brother. “I didn’t always say or do the right thing in the beginning – and truth be told, sometimes I do still slip up – but eventually I think we found our groove and I was able to support him without being overbearing or making him feel worse. I became more in tune with how he was feeling over time and instead of scrabbling to think of something I could do to help, I started asking him ‘what can I do to help?’ and it made a world of difference.”
Still, Ciara admits, minding her brother’s mental health is not without its strain. “I can testify that when someone in the family is dealing with an acute mental health problem it can have a ripple effect for the rest of the family. My mum and I are constantly messaging back and forth to check in on how my brother is doing and we’re often very conscious of how he’s feeling when we’re all sat around the dinner table. It’s an odd kind of strain on the family.”
So how best can you deal with this, and avoid a loved one’s mental health taking a toll on your own wellbeing? For Amanda, having your own support network to help manage that strain is key. “Try not to hold it in and have someone to con de in whether that is a family member, a friend or going to speak to your own psychoanalyst or therapist,” she advises. “It is also important to allow yourself the space to admit that it can be difficult at times living or caring for someone who is suffering be it from a mental health or physical health problem. Acknowledging the challenge can make a huge impact in coping with it.”
It’s here that I ask Amanda an uncomfortable question: if your loved one’s mental health problem is starting to take its toll on your own sense of self, is it ever okay to walk away? “This is a really important question to ask but one that people don’t want to look at because of the sense of responsibility that we have for our loved ones,” she tells me. “There can be an element of feeling that you are giving up or failing them when you start thinking about how much more you can bear. is cannot be further from the truth.”
If you are to take up this position that you are somehow responsible for the mental health and happiness of another person then you are up against an impossible task, and also not believing that they have the capability to work through this. Being supportive is a very different thing from being responsible. In short, it differs for everyone, and the answer lies in the question of how much you can bear or tolerate the situation.
For Ciara, it’s as much about minding yourself as it is a loved one. “Knowing my limitations in looking after my brother has done wonders for me. I think the thing to remember is that no matter what you do you can’t take this pain away from them; it’s an illness and it needs proper treatment. All you can do is support them, make things as easy as possible and don’t just say you’ll be there; actually show up and let them know that you’re there. Looking out for them is a noble thing to do, but you have to know when to take a step back too, for your own sake.”