Mental health is rarely a solo illness. Whilst the person suffering will often feel isolated, alone, thinking that no one understands them, they are often surrounded by a support network of many people who care about them, parents, siblings, partners and friends, and whilst these people might not be suffering from a condition they are certainly impacted by it.
My wife suffers from serious depression and Borderline Personality Disorder, so over the last 3 years I have read an awful lot about both these conditions: how I should care for her, how I should interact with her, what I should say, what I shouldn’t say, what are the symptoms and what might be triggers, all to understand, support and help my wife live with this condition. In all this research, the one thing I haven’t seen a lot of advice on is how you as the “carer” cope, and it’s important that you do because you are going to be no help to that person if you simply break yourself in an effort to help keep them together.
Don’t underestimate how tough it will be
Caring for anybody or anything can be tiring, but caring for someone with a mental health condition is not only tiring, its draining both physically and emotionally. You will feel helpless, underappreciated, stressed and hurt. Just remember that whilst their condition might mean it’s not obvious, you are the glue holding that person together.
It’s ok for you to feel too
All that stress and strain that supporting your loved one is putting on you is eventually going to come out. When reading about various conditions the overriding theme is that the person suffering can’t control their thoughts, feelings or behaviour. The same is true of you, you can’t switch of your emotions, you’re going to be sad, happy, upset, frustrated and angry. A lot. Make sure that when this happens you speak afterwards, apologise, make sure the person knows that you still love them, but don’t feel your emotions are less important because you don’t have a condition.
You’ll feel angry and frustrated. You’re exhausted, stressed, in a permanent state of worry. You’re going to snap on occasion, now and then you are going to forget your empathy, you’re even going to think exactly the insensitive thoughts and phrases that you read so many posts about. That doesn’t make you a bad person, it simply makes you human.
I mean really forgive them. At some point, they are going to say or do things that hurt you. It’s easy to excuse these things due to their condition, but it’s important to realise that these things are not ok, despite, not because of their condition. In order to forgive them you need to acknowledge this, otherwise resentment will build.
Look after your own mental health
Mental health illnesses are obviously not contagious, but let’s be blunt, being around people suffering from depression is depressing. Caring for someone is stressful, caring for someone who doesn’t seem to want your help, is frustrating, worrying about what that person might do every time you leave the house is draining. Whilst it might not be catching it can be very easy to fall into your own depression whilst trying to support someone else.
Make Time for yourself
You need to take time to recharge your batteries, be that a 20 minute walk round the block, a night out with your friends or burying yourself in a good book/computer game/tv show for an hour.
Take care of your own self interests
You need to be at your best to support someone who is suffering. When someone is hurting it’s normal to put them before yourself. This is ok for a relatively short period of time, helping someone through a breakup, a bereavement, losing their job or some other immediate situation or tragedy, but with an ongoing illness this isn’t sustainable or healthy for you. Whilst the person might appreciate you cancelling all your plans, giving up your interests or agreeing to something you don’t want to, in the long term when they understand the sacrifices that you have made, it’s only going to make them upset or feel guilty and add to their existing problems.
It’s not your fault
This isn’t always true, but in most cases, it will be. It’s natural to look for blame and easy to lay it squarely at your own feet. This is especially true if you live with the person that is suffering, or if the illness has come as a shock to you.
Do your research
Research is important so you can understand and empathise with your loved one, but equally it is important for your own peace of mind. Greater understanding of the condition will help you understand when they lash out, push you away, react to situations in a certain way and say or do hurtful things. Unfortunately, it won’t prevent your own emotions in relation to this, but it will least help you understand that despite these things they do still love you and need and appreciate your support.
Have a support network
Foster and nurture a support network for the person that’s suffering, but equally make sure you have your own support network. Don’t underestimate the impact your loved one’s illness will have on you, you need someone to talk to, to rant to, to cry to as much as they do.
Share the load
Utilise that support network to take some of the pressure off you. If you worry about leaving the house for a trip to the shops, get someone on the phone to talk to them whilst you are out. If you need a night off to blow off steam, organise for another friend to sit with them.
Understand that person suffering may not be thinking rationally and therefore not putting their own best interests at heart. Be willing to have the awkward conversations, to push them to do the things that they might not feel like doing at the time. That might be as vital as taking their medication, attending therapy sessions or seeing the doctor or even something as simple as getting them to take a walk in the sunshine or get out of bed in the morning.
Understand that you are not failing
Unless you are a trained professional, you won’t be able to fix the person you are caring for. It’s tough when you care for someone to not be able to make them feel better and sometimes your inability to do so is going to be crushing. That’s not failure, you simply don’t have a magic wand to make all their demons disappear.
You’re not alone
If 1 in 4 people suffer from mental illness, the number of people impacted by it is staggeringly higher.