Mental illness is tough. It’s tough for people who suffer from it — and it’s tough for their friends and family who have to watch them go through it.
I’m one of nearly 44 million Americans who has mental illness each year. Though I’ve been able to manage my generalized anxiety disorder without medication the past few years, my brother Clark had severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression for nearly 10 years. He ended up taking his life just six months ago at age 22.
I want to help others avoid the unthinkable scenario of someone you love dying by suicide. Let’s start a dialogue about mental health and how to actually make a difference, so there are no more heartbreaking stories like Clark’s.
Here are five important ways you can support a loved one with mental illness — or help yourself if you have one.
1. Arm yourself with information. You are your best advocate.
Research your loved one’s condition. Don’t just accept what doctors tell you; be knowledgeable in your own right. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a great place to start. Many specific conditions, like OCD and bipolar disorder, have their own organizations dedicated to providing resources and treatment information. Follow mental health news sources on social media like “The Mighty” to stay up-to-date on the latest information on various illnesses.
2. Connect with others who are going through the same thing.
Find and join groups for sufferers of your condition on Facebook — or better, yet find an in-person support group. There are even groups for caretakers and friends of mental illness sufferers. I’ve benefitted from a Survivors of Suicide support group in my area, where I can connect with people who have experienced the same type of loss.
3. Don’t trivialize mental illness.
Be aware of how you speak about mental illness. It’s grammatically incorrect (not to mention incredibly insensitive) to talk about “how you’re so OCD” because you like to have your desk arranged a certain way — or how your professor is “so bipolar” because he or she was in a bad mood today. It’s truly cringeworthy when sufferers hear you talk this way about a condition that negatively dominates their lives.
4. Spark conversation and support research.
Find out if your condition has a recognition month or week. Share information and resources with others on social media to help people better understand mental illness. Join a walk or march with a mental health advocacy group to band together with others supporting your cause. In Nov. 2017, my family, joined by more than 100 of our family and friends, participated in our local Out of Darkness Walk to fight suicide and raised almost $8,500 for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It’s an incredible feeling to be surrounded by so many people who want to solve mental illness challenges and to support the people facing them.
5. Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide.
If you think a friend or loved one is thinking about suicide, do not be afraid to talk to them about it. If someone is at risk, the AFSP recommends that you talk to them in private, listen to their story, tell them you care about them, ask directly if they are thinking about suicide, encourage them to seek treatment or contact their doctor or therapist, and avoid debating the value of life, minimizing their problems or giving advice.
We have to be honest about the severity of mental illness, the “invisible disease” that affects so many people. I hope you’ll join me in finding a way to spark honest conversations about mental health and stop the stigma associated with it.
Anyone thinking about suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7.
Written by Kristin (Kelley) Copeland