The 5E's of Supporting a Person with Mental Illness

From time to time, we all experience difficulties in managing the day to day stresses in our life. To alleviate the stress, we often confide in others as a shoulder to lean on during difficult times. As the one offering support, it can be difficult knowing exactly what to say or how to respond; very often through fear of saying the wrong thing. There are many ways to offer your support; here are 5E’s of helping someone who’s struggling with mental illness.
Encourage them to Seek Help

In some cases, people with mental illness are hesitant to seek help due to the stigmatising labels associated with their conditions. This can pose a problem as symptoms can worsen over time, leading to unwanted consequences if interventions are not given. Family members and close companions play an important role in encouraging them to seek professional help. One way of doing this is to offer to take them to consult a mental health expert in order to find out what is wrong; you could also offer to accompany them to their appointments. However, it is important to note that forcing is not the way to encourage. If they refuse, let them know how much you care for them and that you want them to get better. Take it one step at a time.

Empathise

When a person is going through a difficult experience, in many instances we typically convey sympathy; expressing how sorry we are for having to go through such a situation. Instead, we should practice empathy. Empathy is about how one can relate with the experiences of others. Imagining what the person has to go through and how they might feel given a particular situation, even though you may not have experienced it first-hand. Empathising facilitates the ability to connect with a person and communicate responses to validate or acknowledge their feelings and struggles.

“I’m not sure of how to help you, but you must be really hurting”
“I can see that you are frustrated and that must be difficult for you to handle”
People with mental illness are frequently misunderstood so it is no surprise as they often choose to suffer in silence. All they want is for their voices to be heard and hardships to be understood – this is exactly what we should do.
Emotional Support

Living with a mental illness can be challenging. On top of coping with the side effects of medications and other symptoms, sufferers must deal with negative and condemning remarks about their condition. Being a subject of discrimination can drive them into the corner as coping becomes unbearable, not knowing who to turn to. In such a situation, emotional support should come into play. Convey empathy by engaging in active listening. Be warm and welcoming. Avoid giving advice or judgmental remarks such as “it’ll get better”, “get over it”, or “toughen up”. Most importantly, avoid pressuring them to talk even if they share a little – it takes time and courage to open up. Focus on conveying compassion and understanding. Let them know that you are there for them – that they were never alone.

Empower

Mental illnesses are commonly associated with feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, and a lack of control over one’s life. The symptoms come and go and at certain times they can be debilitating. When all seems bleak and impossible, sometimes a little push is all they need to keep striving. When they have taken the steps to seek help, remind them of how proud you are as it takes courage to break out of the shell of stigma and seek professional help. Whenever they feel like giving up, remind them of their progress in the journey towards recovery. Highlight their strengths and capabilities. Celebrate their achievements. When we empower people with mental illness, it encourages them to stand on their own two feet again no matter the struggles.

Educate

It is important to educate yourself regarding mental illnesses, particularly the symptoms and warning signs. Each mental illness has its own specific symptoms that manifest differently from one person to another. For instance, a person with depression or social anxiety may shut others out and isolate him or herself from engaging in social situations. This often leads to judgments or labels that the person seems unfriendly and distant, which in turn makes it difficult to reach out for help. Understanding how the symptoms can impact a person’s life and functioning enhances our ability to recognise behavioural changes which may be signalling that someone is going through a difficult period, and needs help and support.

Learning about treatments can be beneficial too as there are many available treatments aside from medication. Different individuals respond to treatments differently, so finding the right mix can take time. So, when a particular treatment is not effective, we know when to start looking for alternatives.

The focus of supporting a person with mental illness is never about “fixing” or offering them solutions to their problems. Instead, we should respond lovingly and empathetically. In taking care of others, we should also be mindful of our limits and capabilities. Self-care is just as important!