A few months ago, I wrote an article encouraging folks with mental health struggles to reach out, offering some concrete suggestions on how to do so.
And don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a critical conversation! So many of us want to ask for help, but we don’t know exactly what to say.
Yet… there’s another conversation that we need to have about reaching out. More specifically, we need to talk about how our loved ones can do better in reaching out to us.
In a perfect world, anyone who was having a hard time could issue the “bat signal” and get every ounce of love and support they deserve. But it rarely works that way, because mental illness is so stigmatized to begin with. Many of us are simply too afraid to reach out.
I’ve been lucky to have some loving people in my life who, in many ways, have modeled the kind of compassion that is so critical during a mental health crisis.
And I want to share what they did — because I think we all have something to learn from them.
If you have a loved one that’s struggling with a mental health crisis, there’s so much you can do to help, whether you realize it or not.
Here are 11 things that my loved ones did for me that made a difference — and why it was so important.
1. They did a lot more listening than talking.
I know this is cheesy, but it’s worth repeating: some of the most meaningful moments I had when I was struggling were when my loved ones just… listened.
There was so much to process during that time. Having a hot cup of tea and being able to talk about all the messy things I was feeling meant the world to me.
They didn’t pry, they didn’t lecture — they followed my lead and let me share what was on my heart. Sometimes, being there for someone really isn’t any more complicated than just, well… being there.
2. They were sure to ask what I needed instead of assuming.
No two people will cope with a mental health struggle in the exact same way. This sounds like it would be obvious, but so often, we don’t take this into account.
What helps one person isn’t always going to be helpful to someone else — and figuring out how to best show up starts with asking the right questions.
Some of my favorite things that people have asked me during a rough time:
“Is there a particular activity we could do together that might take your mind off of things?”
The goal here isn’t necessarily to make someone feel better, since they might not be in a headspace for that. Instead, offer up a distraction or an escape. And if they don’t know what to do? Suggest a few activities!
“Do you need help with anything around the house?”
That stack of dishes in the sink has a bigger mental health cost than you might expect.
“Have you been eating? Drinking water? Talking to people? Taking your medications? Sleeping okay? Would it be helpful if I…”
Can you send them their favorite takeout meal or a cute, reusable water bottle? What about a text every morning to say hello, or every evening to make sure they’ve taken their medications? Could you pay for a monthly or yearly subscription to a meditation app to help with sleep?
Whenever possible, pay attention to where someone is struggling, and tailor your support accordingly!
3. They learned more about my disorder.
In my experience, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a very complicated thing — a lot more complicated than people realize. And rather than asking me twenty million questions when I was diagnosed, my loved ones took it upon themselves to do a little research of their own.
This helped them not only better understand what I was going through, but it ensured that they didn’t unintentionally make things worse.
4. They sent me thoughtful gifts that I could hold onto.
I’ve saved every card, every letter, every care package (except for the chocolate, which I obviously ate), and every keepsake that my loved ones sent me to let me know that they cared. While it obviously didn’t magically lift me out of a crisis, it did make me feel loved and cared for.
One of my favorite things I received was actually from my parents.
They sent me a mental health awareness necklace when I was first diagnosed with OCD that I really cherish. They put a lot of thought into it, too — the pearl they chose was teal, the color that represents OCD awareness.
It was their way of letting me know that they supported me, and that they were with me every step of the way. It means so much to me to have a tangible reminder of that to this day.
5. They took a team approach.
One person can’t do it alone, which is why I appreciated my loved ones’ efforts to connect with each other, and at the very least, make sure that there was a healthy network of support around me.
If you’re not sure how to get that ball moving, here are some of the questions they asked me that could be helpful:
“Who else is supporting you through this and how can I get in touch with them if something comes up?”
Having some names and contact information means that, if there’s a crisis you’re not prepared for, there are others you can call on.
“Who do you live with currently and how can I reach them if I’m concerned about your safety?”
It’s often dangerous to call the police during a psychiatric crisis, so if there’s an emergency, make sure you know who that person is living with and how to connect with them if needed.
“Do you mind if I reached out to (mutual friend) if I need support?”
The buddy system is critical to make sure you have a safe space to process your own fears and frustrations, too.
“Can we compile a list of phone numbers that you can text or call if I’m not available to support you?”
Hotlines, local clinics, friends, a therapist — create a shared spreadsheet that’s easy to access, so that your friend knows there’s always someone available whether you’re there or not.
During any kind of crisis, the more support, the better. So if your loved one doesn’t seem to have a lot of support, that’s priority #1 — it’s time to figure out how to build out that network, whether that network is in the real world, or simply online.
6. They didn’t lecture me about what ‘treatment’ was best.
No lectures about “have you tried yoga,” no misguided rants about antidepressants being overprescribed, and no recommendations for fad diets that would supposedly “cure” me. They just offered compassionate, gentle support as I did my very best to make the decisions that I felt were best for me.
When it comes to dealing with mental health — or any kind of health — that’s a decision that’s made between that person, their health providers, and whoever else they choose to consult.
Unsolicited advice is never appropriate, especially when dealing with something so personal.
7. They helped me navigate the mental health system.
The mental health system is a monstrous, complex, and frustrating thing. It can take months to secure proper support, even years — and when you’re already at the end of your rope, it can be discouraging enough to make you give up entirely.
I can’t describe how helpful it was to have loved ones who were willing to help me track down a therapist, drive me to appointments or clinics, pick up my prescriptions, stay with me in the emergency room, or connect me with support groups.
If your loved one is struggling with the system, ask if there’s a way you can lighten the load — chances are, they’ll be glad that you offered.
8. They worked hard to keep my trust, even when they didn’t approve of my choices.
Like quite a lot of people with mental health struggles, I have a history of substance abuse. Back then, it would’ve been easy (and pretty justified) to look at some of the decisions I made when I was in crisis, and say to me, “Sam, what the hell is wrong with you?”
But I was fortunate to have people close to me who, instead of criticizing me, did everything they could to make sure I remained honest.
When I wound up making decisions that weren’t in my best interest, my loved ones said a few things that really stood out to me:
“Do you have a plan for what you’ll do differently next time you’re feeling this way? Can I help you come up with one?”
Sometimes we made rash decisions because we felt we didn’t have any other options. Coming up with a plan for next time can make a real difference. I actually talk about some of my favorite “mental health hacks” that can be helpful in those situations in this article.
“I’m not here to judge you. I just want to figure out how we can keep you safe.”
Letting someone know that you’re not judging their behavior is so critical to ensure that they won’t isolate themselves.
“If there’s a next time, can you give me a list of three different people you’ll reach out to before you act?”
Remember the phone list I mentioned above? This is the perfect opportunity to remind them that it exists — and that they can and should use it.
These conversations aren’t easy, because sometimes, the decisions folks make in crisis can be downright frustrating. But the reality is, when a person in crisis is no longer honest because they feel judged, they’re less likely to tell someone the next time they’re in a dangerous situation.
Keep the communication as open as possible. And when needed, reach out to someone else in their support network to ensure you don’t burn out in the process.
9. They kept checking in, even when I seemed ‘better.’
Six days before one of my best friends died by suicide, they used the hashtags “#happytobealive” and “#happytobehappyagain” in an Instagram post.
The honest truth is, just because someone seems to be “better,” it doesn’t actually mean that they are.
In fact, many people who attempt suicide often appear to be at peace or even upbeat when they’ve decided that they’ll end their life — it can actually be a warning sign of something very serious going on.
Appearances are deceiving, which is why I’m so grateful that my loved ones know to check in on me, even if I “seem fine.”
10. They didn’t view me as disposable.
A person with mental illness is not disposable.
Let me repeat that again, with emphasis: People with mental illnesses are not disposable.
As someone who has supported a number of people in crisis, I understand the temptation to “ghost” or cut ties with someone who is in a very difficult place. Burnout is real, and we don’t have an infinite amount of energy and love to offer someone, no matter how much they’re struggling.
But there’s a difference between self-care and abandonment, and sadly, I’ve witnessed all too often that there are people who just don’t know the difference.
If you’re not sure how to take a step back from supporting someone during a crisis, here are some suggestions that were immensely helpful to me, both as the person struggling and as the person offering support:
“My life is getting a little bit hectic right now; I’m not sure how reliable I’ll be the next couple weeks. What other forms of support do you have in place?”
Remember the phone list? Pull it out. Make sure (as best you can) that if you’re taking a step back, there are other forms of support in place.
“I’m starting to struggle with my own mental health. If I hibernate a little bit this weekend, is there someone else that can check in with you?”
It’s okay to take care of yourself. Just make sure that you’ve let your loved one know that you’re taking a step back, and if possible, for how long.
“This isn’t at all a reflection of how much I care about you, but I’m running low on energy lately. I want to make sure you’re okay, though. Who else is supporting you right now and how can I get in touch with them?”
Avoid blame — the last thing a person in crisis wants to hear is that they’re a burden. If possible, connect with someone else in their support network, and let them know that they might need some extra check-ins, if they’re available to offer that.
“If I step back for a little while, can you promise me honestly that you’ll keep yourself safe?”
If someone can’t promise you that, it’s an emergency — and it’s time to call for backup.
“Let’s set up a time to check in on…”
If you set a deadline, it’s less likely to feel as though you’ve disappeared. If you can, set a date and time to check in again, so this person knows that you’ll circle back.
Simply bailing on someone in the midst of a mental health crisis can do real harm, and it’s not okay — unless your own safety is at-risk — to carelessly “drop” someone because you’re overwhelmed.
While there’s no perfect way to step back, it’s important to at least make an effort to do so thoughtfully.
11. They didn’t wait for me to ask for help.
I wish, more than anything, that folks with mental health struggles would feel empowered to reach out. But because of the stigma and emotional toll that mental illness can take, I understand that often times, they won’t.
What I appreciated most from my loved ones is that they didn’t wait for an invitation to check in on me, and they didn’t assume that somebody else would.
Lately, I’ve noticed something of a “social media bystander effect,” where we suspect someone is struggling with their mental health, but we assume they have an abundance of support and we disengage.
The sad reality is, though, that “heart reacts” and “hope you’re okay” comments on Facebook, however well-intentioned they are, often aren’t substantive and meaningful enough to carry someone through.
If every one of us is assuming someone else will reach out, chances are, no one will.
Whenever possible, we have to make the active choice to not be a bystander when someone is having a mental health crisis.
And my hope is that, by sharing how others have supported me, we can all feel just a little more empowered to reach out to someone who needs us.
You never know what kind of difference it could make.
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