Mental illnesses tend to build up over time. They do not suddenly appear, like a broken leg, but progress and snowball. As soon as you feel that something is ‘not quite right’ it is important to trust and act on your instinct and try to address the problem. The longer mental health issues go on, the more ingrained they become and the harder they are to deal with.
The most effective way to intervene at this point is through communication. It’s important to pick the right moment and location. It should be a time when it is just you and them, otherwise the young person might feel ‘ganged up on’. It should also be in a place where they feel safe. Phones should be switched off so there is nothing to distract you.
Young people often worry that by telling an adult it will make things worse. You therefore need to be very clear from the beginning that you are there to support and help them and that you won’t do anything without discussing it with them first.
You might ask questions such as :
- “Can you tell me about what is happening?”
- “How are you feeling?”
- “I’ve noticed you are not quite yourself at the moment, is something wrong?”
- “Have you ever felt like this before? When was that?”
- “Do you feel as though you would rather talk to someone else about your problems?”
- “What would you like to happen?”
- “How can I help make you feel better?”
- “Do you want my advice or would you rather I just listened?”
Acknowledge that the conversation is likely to be hard for them. Tell them that you are proud of the strength they are demonstrating in telling you about their problems. They might also be reassured if you tell them that there’s nothing they could say that will make you stop loving them. Tell them it’s okay to be frightened and they don’t have to put on a brave face.
What NOT to Say
In order to write this section, I surveyed some people who had experienced mental health issues and asked them to tell me things their friends and family had said which they had found particularly unhelpful. All of these responses are completely understandable, but the tone is not right for the mind-set of a person battling a mental illness and are likely to make them feel misunderstood:
- “Why can’t you just be happy?”
- “Why do you always have to be like this?”
- “Just pull yourself together!”
- “How can you be so selfish?”
- “Look at the effect this is having on the rest of the family!”
- “This is all in your head!”
- “I can’t see why you can’t just ignore this”.
- “What do you have to worry about?”
- “Just think about something else”.
- “Stop being so negative all the time”.
- “Stop being so weird”.
- “What’s the worst that can happen?”
All the above phrases create a barrier between the person experiencing mental illness and you, who are trying to help them. Getting cross and shouting will just make everyone feel worse. No matter how frustrated you might be feeling, it’s important to put those feelings aside when you are talking to your loved one. Understand that feelings of depression, anxiety or self-hatred are all consuming and cannot simply be pushed aside. Understand also that, as an adult, your library of coping mechanisms are much broader than theirs – You have dealt with numerous situations they have not. When you are experiencing anything for the first time it always feels more potent and urgent. It is crucial never to belittle their feelings, as they will seem overwhelming to them.
There’s no definitive ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do this, every family is different and (this is particularly true if you chose to seek outside help such as therapy) what works for one family might not work for another.
Open, non-judgmental communication should, however, always form the basis of your approach.