Supporting A Loved One’s Mental Health

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, a time dedicated to mental health awareness and suicide prevention. This month is used to spread resources, awareness, and support for mental well-being. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., with 1 suicide every 12 minutes. This may come as a shock to many since mental health and suicide are seen as “taboo” in many households across the U.S. Many people face their mental illness in silence and avoid telling their family and friends because of the stigma. National Suicide Prevention Month de-stigmatizes the topic of mental health and suicide prevention, allowing an opportunity for an open discussion. 

When a loved one is experiencing a mental illness, it is crucial to create a safe environment. The best way to promote a positive space is to offer your unconditional support. Supporting your loved one through a difficult time shows that you care and that their mental well-being is important to you. No matter what your thoughts on mental health and suicide are, creating this support system could make a huge difference. To properly support them, it is essential to stay educated. Here are some things to know, do, and avoid when supporting your loved one’s mental health:

  1. 1. What to know when supporting a loved one’s mental health… 

    Phrasing is everything

    If your loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide, they may be especially sensitive to language. Negative thoughts can bring a whirlwind of emotions, including guilt and shame for their feelings. This may cause your loved one to become sensitive to certain phrasing, especially when their mental health is mentioned negatively. Some common phrases to avoid include “What’s wrong?” and “You seem off.” Implying that something is wrong with their behavior can cause them to overthink, resulting in more stress and anxiety. A helpful tip is using positive and encouraging language. Instead of asking what’s wrong, you could say, “Want to chat?” Positively enforcing a conversation, without the added pressure, can encourage your loved one to talk about their feelings. Another helpful tip is using positive language. Instead of using words like “suffering” and “issues,” you can describe their emotional well-being as a “journey.” By doing this, you remove the negative connotations associated with mental health. Overall, it is important to think about phrasing and language, as it may do more harm than good.

    When to intervene

    One of the most significant things to know when supporting your loved one’s mental health journey is when to get involved. It is a common misconception that mental illnesses equal suicidal thoughts. Assuming that your loved one is suicidal because they have a mental illness can be harmful and counterproductive. Nonetheless, it is important to know the warning signs of someone at risk. The causes of suicide are complex and determined by many different factors, some of which include mental illness, substance abuse, and exposure to violence. Here is a list of some warning signs that warrant the act of getting involved:

        -Talking about wanting to die

        -Looking for ways to kill themselves

        -An increase in alcohol or drug abuse

        -Behaving recklessly

        -Withdrawing from friends and family

    For more information on when to intervene, check out the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website, run by the US Department of Health and Human Services. 

  2. 2. Some things to avoid when addressing mental health…

    Making it about yourself

    Mental illnesses and thoughts of suicide are not anyone’s “fault.” Finding someone or something to blame for your loved one’s negative thoughts is counterproductive. Many people face mental illness due to factors beyond one’s control, such as chemical imbalances in the brain, family history of mental illness, and traumatic brain injury. Placing blame on yourself or others can be damaging, and can cause unwanted stress for both you and your loved one. By making their mental illness about yourself, it diminishes their mental health journey and deflects their feelings and experiences towards your own. Try and avoid making comments like, “I could have done more” or “What did I do wrong?” Comments like these will not get you anywhere and can do more harm than good. To successfully encourage your loved one, it is important to listen and offer support, not place blame.

    Minimizing or oversimplifying their experiences

    When supporting a loved one’s mental well-being, it is vital to listen. It may seem difficult to accept that your loved one is experiencing hardship in their mental health journey. For some, this may cause thoughts of skepticism or disbelief, which can result in oversimplification. Oversimplification of one’s emotions can cause them to feel unheard, making it seem as if they’re alone in their mental health journey. Try to avoid comments like “You’re just having a bad week” or “You’ll have a better day tomorrow.” By doing this, your loved one’s feelings are minimized to a minor disruption, rather than the cause of  mental illness. It is also important to avoid comments like “Snap out of it” or “Just try harder.” Making your loved one’s psychological health something they need to “try harder” for, when they are already trying as hard as possible, can be demoralizing. Mental illness is not something that can be switched off or avoided with “hard work.” It is essential to avoid minimizing or oversimplifying your loved one’s feelings and instead offer your unconditional support. 

  3. 3. What you can do to create an open and supportive environment for your loved one…

    Have patience

    Mental health is a journey, one that does not have a specific timeline. An important thing to remember when supporting a loved one’s emotional well-being is patience. To put it simply, there will be good days and bad days. There will be days when they seem happy, healthy, and enjoying life. There will also be days when they have negative thoughts and feelings, including those of suicide. Avoid thinking that a good day means they are “recovered” and a bad day means they are “regressing.” Getting frustrated or abandoning hope over a string of bad days can make your loved one feel worse. Instead, recognizing their journey can help them feel supported and accepted. It is effective to remember that mental health is a journey, not a race to happiness. 

    Educate yourself

    When a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, it is important to stay educated on the topic of mental health and suicide. This may include reading studies, watching informational videos, attending lectures, and more. Everyone experiences their mental health journey differently. For instance, a person with bipolar disorder does not have the same experiences as someone with an anxiety disorder. Nonetheless, it is valuable to educate yourself about common symptoms and warning signs. This may include information on mental illnesses, coping strategies, treatment options, and medications. The better you understand how to successfully care for your loved one, the better you can assist them on their mental health journey.

Mental health is not something to be avoided or thrown aside. For many, tackling the topic of mental illnesses and suicide can be daunting and uncomfortable. It may also be difficult to accept that it can happen to anyone, including the people you love. You may think, “Nobody I know feels that way” or “Why would anyone in my family have thoughts of suicide?” In reality, mental illnesses and suicide can happen to any family member, friend, or loved one. This is why National Suicide Prevention Month is so important, as many people in America experience mental illnesses or thoughts of suicide. During September, and the following months here on out, talk about mental health. Support your loved ones and open the conversation of mental well-being, as it may make a huge difference in their lives.

Here are some resources with more information on suicide prevention, statistics, and awareness:

National Alliance on Mental Health 

American Psychiatry Association 

Mental Health America 

Number for National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

More information on Suicide statistics