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Many people want to help a friend or neighbor who may have a mental illness, but they don’t know where to start or what to do. The feeling of helplessness can be paralyzing and many wind up doing nothing and walking away feeling guilty that they could have done more.

To find your way in caring for someone with a possible mental illness, follow these steps to educate yourself and become comfortable meeting your friend or neighbor’s needs.  

  1. Recognize what you can’t see. People with mental illness can lead very successful lives. For example, anxiety is one of the most common – and often hidden – forms of mental illness – 18.1 percent (42 million) of American adults live with anxiety disorders.1 It’s important to remember that mental illnesses are rarely visible. Mental illness should never define the person. See your friend or neighbor for who they are first, not their illness. Just like for anyone else, some days will be better than others. Be patient. One day could be normal and the next could be the day they really need you.  
  1. Avoid stigmas associated with mental illness. The stigma that is often attached to mental illness is that it leads to violent behavior. Statistics show that it is the opposite; adults with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violent behavior than perpetrators. In order to overcome stigmas, it’s important to distinguish the behavior from the person. For example, substance abuse can be used as a coping mechanism for mental illness. Substance abuse coupled with a mental illness can lead to unpredictable or dangerous behavior if left untreated. Approximately 10.2 million adults have both mental health and addiction disorders.1
  1. Provide a supportive environment and culture. While we all want to help, we must acknowledge that as a society we’re not quite there yet. Our culture still has to work to do to be more supportive to those with mental illness. Many people struggle alone with mental health symptoms every single day. To help those around you who may have a mental illness, do your part in creating a culture that acknowledges mental illness and the underlying challenges people with mental illness face. Let them know it’s okay to get help. Let your friends and neighbors know they are not alone and help direct them to places that can help with their specific needs so that everyone can function in a safe and healthful society.
  1. Overcome challenges to getting and giving help. Depending on the resources in your area, getting help for mental illness can be complicated. Don’t feel like you have to bear the responsibility of rescuing a friend or neighbor with mental health symptoms on your own. The system may not be easy to navigate, so if you are not a professional in the field, find someone who is and ask them what to do. It’s okay for caregivers to get help too. Remember that mental illness can lie dormant some days or years and then a life-changing event could cause symptoms to reoccur. Have a quick number to call a local resource that is available in short order should your friend or neighbor need short term help.
  1. Demonstrate unconditional love and be inclusive. At the end of the day everyone needs to know they are cared about regardless of their situation. Caregivers of any ability can help their friends with mental illnesses connect with others, socially and professionally, and help them avoid isolation. Kindness is at the root of all caregiving. As author Henry James once said, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
  1. Don’t forget about caring for yourself, too. Caring for someone who has a mental illness can be a difficult endeavor. In order to keep helping and loving them best, make sure you continue to remind yourself that the illness does not define your relationship. You should also remember that getting help is okay and that applies to you, too.

These are some very basic principles to caring for someone who may have a mental health problem. If you take anything away from this article it’s these things:

  1. Your friend’s illness does not define who they are;
  2. Do not allow mental illness to define your relationship; and
  3. Remember that much is out of your control and that is okay, you can help find the resources your friend needs.

No matter what mental illness your friend or neighbor may face, the best thing you can give them is the reassurance that someone cares. The rest will fall into place.

By Donna Gallup, CEO and president of American Family Housing

Donna Gallup, M.S.W., L.S.W., is president & CEO of American Family Housing and a lifelong human services advocate who has tenaciously worked to benefit disadvantaged individuals and communities. Gallup is currently getting her doctorate at the University of Southern California for organizational change and leadership. With decades of experience in housing and community development, fundraising and social services, Donna possesses a unique and comprehensive understanding of the issues affecting the homeless population in California and across the USA. A New Jersey native, Donna holds a Master’s Degree in social work from New York University and has worked extensively with special needs populations, including the homeless, adults with mental illness, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, vulnerable families, and persons living with the challenges of addiction. Within the last decade alone, she has helped secure over $21 million for property acquisition and rehabilitation, operations, and services to develop supportive housing for the homeless and mentally ill. Prior to joining AFH, Donna served as CEO of the LAMP Community located on Skid Row in Los Angeles and in December 2013, the ACLU SoCal honored her at its Bill of Rights Dinner with the Human Rights Advocate award.

1 National Institute of Mental Health.

Written by Guest Author
The Caregiver Space accepts contributions from experts for The Caregiver's Toolbox and provides a platform for all caregivers in Caregiver Stories. Please read our author guidelines for more information and use our contact form to submit guest articles.

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