A strong support system is one of the most important protective factors for those with mental illnesses such as depression. Knowing that someone genuinely cares can make the dark, gloomy place at least a little brighter. However, most people don’t know what to say to someone with a mental illness.

For starters, here’s what NOT to say:

“Cheer up”

“Think positive.”

“You have so much to be grateful for.”

“What do you have to be depressed for?”

Even though you may have the best intentions, such statements may increase feelings of guilt and send the message that you don’t understand.

Often someone with a mental illness wants to know that they are not alone. Saying that you are there is one thing – but truly being there for them is what counts. It’s the small actions that make the biggest difference. E.g. asking how they are and truly taking the time to listen to how they honestly are. Don’t say ‘I understand’ if you don’t. Sometimes we feel that we need to offer solutions – but often this is our need, and the rush to offer suggestions may make the person feel like you are not truly listening to them or understanding the situation. Take into account that they may have already thought of all the solutions are you suggesting, and may become frustrated.

Let your loved one know how you feel about what they’re going through. Let them know that you are available if they want to talk or offer to assist in any practical way – could you make them a meal tomorrow evening? Perhaps drive them to an appointment? Or offer to fetch their kids from school to lighten their load? There are some people who will never respond to ‘Is there anything I can do?’ so offering to do something more specific is more likely to work.

Reassure them that although what they’re going through may be really difficult, it is also temporary, because you have also seen them at their best. Sometimes they may push you away, but it’s not because they don’t want or need you – it’s just a reflection of the inner struggles they are battling. The truest friend is one who stands by you even when you try to push them away, because they understand that you are suffering.

Educate yourself on their mental illness – by doing your own research and by asking questions that can help you to support them better. Understanding a loved one’s mental illness means that their symptoms makes sense to you, you will understand what the treatment entails and you know that they’re not just making excuses all the time. Knowing what the most effective treatment is, also helps you encourage your loved one to get the most appropriate professional help.

Perhaps most importantly…be a good listener. A good listener cares and is curious, instead of being eager to reply. One of the biggest conversation tragedies I’ve noticed is that when someone shares something about, a common response is “me too”. This is disrespectful because it refocuses the conversation on yourself and does not allow the initial speaker to convey what they were wanting to say. People therefore do not feel heard. And if this isn’t corrected, we will never be able to pick up when loved ones are distressed, because we are not listening respectfully. This is not always a conscious thing, so try to be more aware of how you respond when someone shares something. Instead of sharing your own experience, allow them to complete whatever they’ve wanted to say and you can still have your turn afterwards

Mental health is real! It is more common than we realise. We need to open our arms, ears and hearts to loved ones so they feel comfortable enough to reach out. Spread HOPE!

8 Comments

  1. Nerisha Shriduth says:

    How can I help a loved one going through depression.

    Thanks

  2. Michelle govender says:

    Hi,I would like to know something.My son is first year university and when it comes to tests and exams he is constantly stressed and always thinking negative.He has to do things consistently and like for an eg.if he has to take a break longer than usual it stresses him out.Always putting himself down n stressed that he has to make others happy.please help

    • Rakhi Beekrum says:

      Good day, it will help for him to see a psychologist who can do a thorough assessment & teach him necessary coping skills.

  3. Khadija says:

    Hi .hope you are well.I really got a problem with my 21 year old daughter.When she was about 8years old .A family member made her feel uncomfortable and touched her in all the wrong places .this been happening for a while.about three years ago my daughter came out with it.She went into a major depression .She is so angry with every one especially me .She thinks I didn’t protect her.it’s three years .She doesn’t leave the house.doesn’t want to face the outside world.She has no interest in anything.she has picked up lots of weight.she is studying at Unisa.But she has a lot of aggression in her.She refuses to go for help.I am so worried about her.She is a very bright kid but very negative.Recently she mentioned to me that her serotonin levels are very low.She refuses to help herself.Due to all this my health is gone down.I’m really desperate for your help on how to help her.we constantly on war paths cos the person that hurt her is my family.I would really like to hear from you .Many Thanks .Khadija

    • Rakhi Beekrum says:

      Dear Khadija, you need to get her help urgently – even forcefully. Her best interest and safety outweighs her refusal to get help. If she’s that depressed then she is not rational enough to make the best decision. She must see a psychiatrist and psychologist urgently.

  4. Jyothi Pillay says:

    Beautiful write up.. A strong support system is good, but it is also very hard to come by and as much as mental health is real, there still is a massive stigma to it..
    I’ve been battling with depression for 15 years and along the years, I’ve lost many friendships, family members just keep away.. I’ve mastered pretending to be happy when I’m around people, because no one really understands.. When you do reach out for help, you are either being gossipers about or no one takes you seriously.. when you feel so much dispair and end up in hospital, everyone thinks you are just seeking attention, but in actual fact the pain is so bad, that it feels like you dying on the inside and from all opinions of others you become too weak and scared to speak or reach out for help, that you become silent and suffer alone..

    • Rakhi Beekrum says:

      Dear Jyothi, I’m so sad to hear about your situation. It really saddens me that in this day and age people are still uneducated about mental illness. What’s important is for you to choose who the helpful people are and only ever turn to those who uplift you. Since you have been to hospital you would have a psychiatrist and psychologist who will guide you along & teach you the necessary coping skills. You may consider joining a support group to communicate with others who understand what you are going through.

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