May marks Mental Health Awareness Month and it is likely that you know someone who lives with mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 52.9 million adults experience mental illness. That’s about 1 in every 5 people. The numbers express how common mental illness is and also helps us understand its physical, social, and financial impact. Most importantly, the numbers help us show that no one is alone. Mental illness is surrounded by stigma, especially if we don’t know much about it. It can be difficult to understand and in turn we can be unsure of how to support our loved ones going through mental health issues.

In order to support someone who is struggling with mental health issues, it’s important to recognize what mental illness is and what the symptoms and warning signs are. Some common mental illnesses include mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety, PTSD, or phobias. Symptoms vary depending on the type of mental health issue someone is struggling with, but there are some common ones that include:

  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Excessive fear and worry
  • Social withdrawal
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in appetite
  • Increased or overuse of substances such as alcohol or drugs

Being aware of some of these symptoms can allow us to recognize that someone may be struggling before they reach out. One of the most useful things you can do is just to talk about mental health. If you notice someone in your life is struggling or you’re worried about someone, it’s important not to wait. Waiting and hoping that they’ll come to you might be harmful in getting them support. Talking to someone is often the first step in order for you to know what is troubling them and what you can do to help. NAMI provides an extensive list on how you may approach someone living with a mental health condition. Below are a few suggestions from that list:

  • Ease into the conversation. It may be that the person is not in a place to talk and that’s okay. Extending gentle kindness can go a long way.
  • Be respectful, compassionate and empathetic to their feelings by engaging in reflective listening, such as “I hear that you are having a bad day today. Yes, some days are certainly more challenging than others. I understand.”
  • Instead of directing the conversation at them with ‘you’ statements, use ‘I’ statements instead.
  • Give them the opportunity to talk and open up but don’t press
  • Show respect and understanding for how they describe and interpret their symptoms.
  • Genuinely express your concern.
  • Talk about self-care
  • Offer them help in seeking professional support
  • Know your limits

The bottom line is to be as supportive, genuine, and kind as you can and most importantly, let it be known that they are not alone. You’ll want to avoid saying things like “just look on the Brightside” or “everyone gets a little anxious/depressed sometimes”. Although you may think saying something like that is helpful, it can often make someone feel criticized or embarrassed for feeling the way they do. Try your best to make them feel comfortable and secure with sharing their emotions.

The exhaustive list of NAMI’s tips for how to approach someone struggling with a mental health condition can be found here:

By, Amanda Navarra, MHC EAP Counseling intern