Mental health challenges vary significantly in their nature and severity, and only broadly fit under the same umbrella. Yet, whether dealing with depression, mania, anxiety, or psychosis, the impact on those diagnosed and their loved ones can be devastating. Further, being confronted with a mental health diagnosis can be both bewildering and terrifying. It may be experienced suddenly like falling off a cliff, or slowly like crawling backwards, painstakingly descending into the deepening darkness of a cave. Whether it is a first encounter, or the recent reemergence of a familiar foe, it’s presentation is no less paradigm-shifting.
As a loved one with the goal of providing support, one’s aim should be to “be the light.” We can’t bear their burden nor choose or travel the path for them, but we can lighten the load by being the light. The light that provides hope and guides the way. In doing so we can help them recognize that they aren’t wandering into a cave, but rather through a tunnel. With the benefit of our light, as long as they keep moving they will come out the other side. Aspiring to this ideal and knowing exactly how to apply it are two different things. The goal of this article is to assist with both.
If someone we care about were to slip on a puddle in their garage and fall, hurting their arm in the process, there would be little question as to how to best respond. After helping them up and applying some ice, if their pain continued the next step would be to take them to the ER for an evaluation. If the x-ray revealed a break, a doctor would set the arm, and a cast would be applied. Some instructions would be given, perhaps a check-up along the way, and in six weeks or so the cast would come off. The cause of the injury could be pinpointed to the puddle of water and resulting slip, the source of the pain to the precise break in the bone, and the corrective course of action the cast. The steps to a full recovery and its timeframe in most cases is quite concrete and straightforward.
Contrast that with a situation in which a loved one is dealing with a mental health challenge. The ramifications would be no less, yet there would be added layers of complexity. Our response might be burdened by our own sense that we are confronting something with which we are unfamiliar, uncertain, and uncomfortable. The stigma, and all that entails, and the false implication of personal culpability that often accompanies a mental health episode can be road blocks at both ends of the street. Like the yellow lines painted on the road, these are artificially constructed impediments that are honored because they have been learned. Yet, the responses of both the individual directly enduring the experience and those supporting them can be hampered by these barriers.
Certainly, recovery will require a reckoning with the perception of others, and a reconciliation with the evolution to one’s identity. However, no one is beyond help, nor is any caretaker helpless in being capable of offering it. In becoming the light of support for another, the following four components are beneficial to being present and empowering while helping loved ones C-O-P-E.
It is often the things that should go without saying, that bear repeating. Compassion is not only one of those things, it is truly beyond compare. When seeing a loved one confront the adversity of a mental health challenge, the impulse is usually to jump right to trying to provide a solution. Problem solving does have its place, but it is not the primary concern of someone suffering, and when it is the default response it can come off as insincere and imply both that a person is incapable and in need of “fixing.”
An authentic demonstration of empathetic support is both more desirable and useful. Through this, compassion becomes both the process to wellness and the foundation for it. The suffering associated with a mental health event can be both dreadful and tangible without being quantifiable. The reality is there is no true understanding of another’s unique anguish. Yet, one doesn’t need to relate to it to relate to someone with it. Fortunately, understanding is not a prerequisite for support. Endeavoring to respond with compassion means to support without judgement, accept without condition, and embrace without apprehension. There is no “solution” that exists without those elements of the equation included in the answer.
The idea of an objective human being is an oxymoron. That which makes us human, makes us biased. None of us views the world through a lens, but rather through the filter of our experiences and emotions bound by our roles and relationships. So, while actual objectivity may be unrealistic, it is the intention for it and attention to it that counts.
Whether they’ve had the carpet pulled out from beneath them abruptly or they’ve encountered a gradual erosion of fulfilment and functionality, experiencing a mental health episode involves some distortion to one’s perception. One of the greatest challenges to a brain-based disorder is that recognizing it can be like trying to bite one’s own teeth. In some cases, individuals can comprehend this from a cognitive standpoint, yet that knowledge is not enough to overcome it emotionally and behaviorally. Mental health conditions can blur all semblance of one’s baseline and upend predictable metronomic pulses and touchstones calibrated over decades of life. One way or another, perspective becomes skewed.
It is for these reasons that the objectivity of a trusted loved one is so critical. The benefits of objectivity work on a number of levels. Through maintaining a certain degree of perspective, family and friends often are the ones who initially notice the deviation from prior levels of activity or enjoyment. This can be enough to prompt further evaluation that can reveal the extent of the issue and lead to it being addressed. Loved ones also serve as living reminders of what once was, and can be again, and should aim to not lose sight of this fact for themselves and those they are supporting.
Objectivity is about balance. Therefore, contrived positivity is not necessary. Life’s not all rainbows and unicorns. So, it is okay to ditch the unicorns, but important to keep the rainbows. Even after weathering this storm, there will certainly be more rain. There is no avoiding that. Yet, there will also be some rainbows, and it is immensely beneficial for that reality to be consistently and objectively reflected.
Patience is not only a virtue, it is also not an option. When it comes to mental health, the response precedes the progress. Recovery is often akin to turning a cruise ship. The alteration of course happens before you get to observe a change in scenery. This can be difficult to accept when you are seeing someone you care for hurting so badly. It is important to note patience is not about being complacent, it is about having perspective and being present. There is a difference between being productively assertive, and unrealistically anxious to attain certain pre-conceived levels of improvement.
Impatience is perceptible and can be palpable. Despite the noble intentions to swiftly alleviate symptoms, impatience can exaggerate the suffering by making someone feel even worse about feeling badly. With patience there is less susceptibility to whims and the waves, and more capability to catch currents and create trends. This is not to say that with the proper care that there can’t be some immediate relief.
The very act of seeking treatment can provide some much-needed validation, clarification, and inspiration, before the full benefits of a multi-faceted intervention can take effect. Just grasping the wheel and getting a view over the bow can be as empowering as actually maneuvering the ship. An appropriate medication regimen can take time to fine tune and the right medications weeks to reach a therapeutic dose. While counseling can help to create both structure and strategies within the context of a safe space and healing relationship which can foster positive leverage for change without much delay, it too benefits from having the time to build and naturally unfold. It is only through patience that recovery is promoted and sustained without being pressured.
Engagement begins with interaction. Mental health challenges typically impact functioning to the extent that the person enduring the episode withdrawals both literally and figuratively to some degree. Vulnerability may be unceremoniously thrust upon them in an entirely new way. Experiencing the sensation of emotional microfractures can leave one feeling fragile, disempowered, and defended. Often, daily activities and previous levels of socialization are temporarily disrupted. Therefore, engagement with loved ones may be both their actual and symbolic lifeline. As such, this engagement may serve as the primary means of connection both on an interpersonal level and to a life once lived and longed for.
Beyond this direct interaction with a loved one, the intent of effective engagement extends further. At the depths of an episode the symptoms often preclude someone suffering from being able to truly advocate on their own behalf. It is then incumbent upon loved ones, and advantageous to all for them to seek out and be a conduit with helping professionals. Those enduring the challenge may not have the energy, nor feel worthy of being helped. It is the persistence of loved ones with the intimate knowledge of previous baselines and awareness of current functioning that helps to overcome this barrier. The engagement serves as a temporary bridge facilitating care in the interim before the loved ones become able enough to span the gap on their own.
As a champion for a loved one’s interests, it would certainly be beneficial incorporating the aforementioned principles of compassion, objectivity, and patience. That said, when it comes to effective engagement, there may be times when discretion appropriately casts those anchors aside. When advocating for a suffering loved one, you’ve earned the right to be motivated by your affection for them and devotion to them, and to be insistent and relentless in the pursuit of results.
There will never be anything easy about dealing with mental health challenges. They can incite self-doubt and despair in both those experiencing the event and their caretakers. Yet, by embracing the components of Compassion, Objectivity, Patience, and Engagement you can avoid the doubt and despair and feel more capable and confident in helping your loved ones C-O-P-E. Take comfort in the fact that no amount of darkness can dim your light. When you can be the light, you can help others see the sun again.
For questions about the information in this article or for professional help for you or a loved one please reach out to us at Inspired Counseling Solutions.