Dr Johannes Uys, GP and provider of psychiatric services at Broadgate GP, discusses the importance of family and friend networks in mental health.
It can be quite frightening when someone that you care about is sick, especially if they are diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s very hard to see someone you love in pain and can be confusing when they are not acting like themselves; you can take care of them if they have a cold or the flu, but what do you so when they are suffering from a mental illness? Just like any other health problem, someone with a mental illness needs extra love and support. After all, just because you cannot see the illness, it doesn’t mean that you are powerless.
I believe that talking about mental health and how you can help is very important, especially due to the fact that a lot of unaided mental health problems end in self-harm or suicide; although suicide and self-harm are not mental illnesses themselves, they are strongly linked with mental suffering.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, there were over 6,500 deaths by suicide in the U.K. in 2018. This is such an alarming number, that I believe can be reduced if people know what signs to look for and how to help the person who is suffering. If the number decreases even slightly, we are moving in the right direction.
As a GP in London, I think that a lot of people in the U.K. (London especially) don’t speak about the state of their mental health and would rather keep it to themselves. This could be because they don’t want to burden others with their problems, or maybe because they would rather ignore it than admit the fact that they are suffering.
No matter what the reason is, not dealing with a mental health issue can have very severe consequences; suicide does not only affect the immediate family of the deceased, it can affect every single person who knows and cares for them. This is another reason why we believe that discussing mental health is crucial.
So, how can you?
Assistance from family and friends is a very important part of helping someone who is suffering with a mental illness; the support creates a network of both practical and emotional help, providing assistance whenever they require it. Parents, siblings, children, partners, extended family, close friends or others who simply care such as neighbours, your co-workers and teachers can all be part of this network of support. Some people will have a larger network than others, but we all have at least a couple of people who will be there for us when we need them.
Protective factors, such as the support network that we’ve mentioned above, can help to reduce vulnerability to suicidal tendencies and the consideration of how best to support and enhance access to protective elements is a vital part of preventing suicide or self-harm.
When it comes to helping someone deal with and recover from their mental illness, there are various things that you can help, including:
Look For Help – Friends and families can be important advocates to help loved ones get through the tough early stages of a mental illness. They can help their loved ones to find out what treatment is best for them, and they can also be key in letting professionals know what’s going on, filling in the gaps of the bigger picture that the ill person may not be well enough to describe on their own.
Support A Healthy Lifestyle - You can also help with many day-to-day factors, including finances, housing, nutrition, improving sleeping habits and exercise. It’s important that someone suffering with a mental illness continues to do things daily.
Emotional Support - Emotional support can play a very important role in helping someone to feel less alone or ashamed of their mental health state. They are not to blame for their state of mind, but they may feel that they are or could even be getting that message from others.
Medications, Treatments and Appointments - If you do spend a lot of time around the person, you can help them keep track of their medications and when they need to take them. Alongside this, you can remind them to complete their counselling tasks such as homework or use their therapy treatment each morning, as well as remind them to make appointments or keep appointments for their treatment. You can be really valuable to your loved ones and help their lives become a little easier.
Notice When Something Is Right Or Wrong - Family and friends are usually the first ones to notice when something is wrong and seeking assistance as early as possible is a crucial part of treating any mental illness. Finding the best treatment, the one that works, is often done through a trial and error process, so your family and friends may also be the first to see signs of improvement, no matter how small.
Love, patience and understanding
Recovery from a bad mental state can be an exercise in love, patience and understanding. It’s not unknown to take one step forward and 2 steps back and any improvement, even things that would seem usually seem trivial, are things that should be celebrated.
Acceptance is also a major part of recovery; as I’ve mentioned above, it’s not their fault and ignoring the matter or choosing not to accept it can make things much worse. Even telling them that you love them and you are there whenever they need you can make a huge difference to how they are feeling.