As friends or family, we want to help our loved ones when they’re struggling with a mental illness or painful feelings. Our natural tendency might be to offer advice or a reassuring comment. It’s hard to see a loved one in distress, and maybe we think we can be objective.
But we might unwittingly share advice that’s unhelpful and even hurtful. Below, two clinicians share examples of this kind of advice along with what really helps.
“You don’t need to see a therapist.”
You might tell your loved one that their issues aren’t that serious or bad enough to see a therapist. However, this encourages people to wait to seek help until their symptoms are severe, or they’re in crisis, said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW, founder and executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy.
Yet it’s harder to work through problems when they’re deeply entrenched. Therapy can be a “check-in or preventative measure,” she said.
People can seek professional help at any time. (The earlier the better.) For instance, seek help when you’re experiencing concerning changes, such as angry outbursts, extreme thinking and social isolation, Hanks said. Seek help when you’re experiencing symptoms that interfere with daily life. For example, your negative thoughts or difficulty concentrating is hampering your ability to work, she said.
“It’s not that bad.”
Psychotherapist Jamie L. Summers Stacks, MS, LPC, has heard all sorts of versions of this statement from her clients. Stacks specializes in treating anxiety, depression, addiction and trauma at her private practice in Hot Springs, Ark.
I often hear from my clients “my husband just keeps telling me how lucky I am and that I have no reason to be depressed;” “My mother says ‘you are just being lazy and feeling sorry for yourself, just pull yourself out of it;” “My friends tell me ‘it is just all in your head, nothing is really wrong.'”
The reality is that people who are struggling with depression, anxiety or any other mental health issues are suffering. Such statements only amplify this suffering and make them feel more and more alone.
“Just act like you feel fine, and it’ll go away.”
This advice promotes denying symptoms or emotions, which only prolongs suffering, Hanks said. Plus, emotions that aren’t processed and symptoms that aren’t acknowledged can manifest into additional concerns, she said. “If a person denies depressive symptoms, they might turn to substances to mask or to cope with the low moods.”
“Just avoid it.”
Well-meaning friends and family may inadvertently help a loved one evade their fears, Stacks said. For instance, you might directly suggest your loved one avoid an anxiety-provoking situation. Or you might regularly accommodate their anxiety.
“In my years of practicing I have way too often seen children and adolescents home-schooled by well-intending parents due to the stress or anxiety that kids feel at school,” Stacks said.
Avoidance only maintains fears and increases anxiety and depression. It causes people to build up potentially anxiety-provoking events in their minds, making them seem worse than the actual event. This “causes the body to go through a stress reaction to an event that is already over or has not and may not even occur.”
A better approach is to compassionately encourage your loved one to move through their anxiety and doubts, instead of avoiding them, she said.
“You need to have more faith.”
“This advice is damaging because it creates a dichotomy between faith and professional help,” said Hanks, author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. Often people think that it’s “either/or,” she said.
However, religion and psychotherapy aren’t on opposing sides. They can work together to help you heal, she said.
Hanks suggested thinking of it as “both/and:” You can work with a clergy member and seek mental health counseling from a licensed professional. Plus, you can find clinicians who will incorporate your faith into your sessions.
Empathizing with Your Loved One
If your loved one is struggling with a mental illness, it might be hard for you to empathize. But all of us can understand pain and struggle.
Stacks suggested readers remember a time you were hurting. Maybe a loved one died, you got a divorce, or you lost your job. Remember how you felt. Maybe you felt sad, anxious, restless or helpless, she said. “[N]ow think if it would have been possible to ‘just snap out of it.'”
Or, as she said, “What if after the death of your father, a friend said to you ‘it is OK to be upset, but we all go through this; it isn’t the end of the world.’ Would you have been able to grieve any faster?”
“What if you lost your job and your ego, self-esteem and overall identity had been impacted and a loved one said ‘well, stop feeling sorry for yourself; we all have problems’ and then proceeded to tell you their problems. Do you think that would have made you feel better?”
Instead, you’d probably feel very betrayed, hurt and alone, she said.
Mental illness is invisible. There are no runny noses, fevers, bruises or tumors. So it’s easy to forget, minimize or dismiss the pain someone is feeling. We don’t see it like we do with accepted illnesses, such as the flu or cancer.
Because if you had either, would someone saying, “just get over it,” “you’re being lazy lying around,” or “it could be worse” help you recover or even make sense?
Supporting Your Loved One
Both Hanks and Stacks emphasized that one of the most helpful things we can do for a loved one is be there and listen.
Stacks shared these additional suggestions for supporting a loved one:
- Directly ask, “Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?”
- If they’re talking about something upsetting, ask: “can I do anything or would you just like me to listen?” This question “clarifies what they need from you and puts them in a better place to voice their needs,” Stacks said.
- Acknowledge their pain, and say something sincere, such as: “I am sorry you are feeling so bad.”
- Offer to do something with your loved one (e.g., “would you like to take a walk together?”). This shows them that they have a place to turn, Stacks said.
- Suggest they see a mental health professional. If you’re worried about them, tell them (e.g., “I am worried about you and I think you might feel better if you went to talk to someone about this.”) You also can offer to help them find a therapist.
- If your loved one has a mental illness, let them know you believe it’s a real illness: “I understand you have an illness that is causing you to feel this way.” This tells your loved one that you don’t blame them and understand it’s not their fault, she said.
Ultimately, any help you offer needs to come from a place of acceptance and non-judgment, Stacks said.
“Remember that no matter what someone is going through, it is their experience and the way they feel is their reality. If you can join in with compassion and willingness to listen to them and guide toward professional help, if needed, then you will likely be a great help in getting your loved one on the road to feeling better,” she said.