By Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2014-02-27 19:08:22
It’s no simple task to help someone who is struggling with a mental or mood disorder. Don’t go it alone. There may be no more helpless feeling than standing by while a loved one struggles in pain. And the uniquely mysterious pains of a mental illness are all that much more distressing to witness, because there’s so little you can do to provide relief. Add to that the fact that many mental illnesses can transform the personality of the individual who is suffering, altering how the two of you relate. Even if this is only temporary, it’s an added burden to be left lonely, frustrated, frightened, bewildered and overwhelmed, as well as worried. Addressing a loved one’s mental or mood disorder certainly requires a combination of courage and compassion, along with patience and persistence. In addition, it’s important not to lose perspective: You cannot cure someone else’s mental disorder. Despite your best efforts, his or her symptoms may get worse. But there are steps you can take, words you can say and things you can do to provide valuable support and alleviate your own sense of helplessness. Don’t give up. You might be the best and most effective lifeline for seeing this individual through both the crisis and chronic stages of the disorder. READING THE SIGNS Two articles in this issue, “Depression: More Than Just a Bad Day” (page 20 ) and “Through the Looking Glass” (page 28 ), along with additional content found online at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent, explore the most common mental and mood disorders, identifying symptoms that indicate it may be time for you to step in and/or consult a medical professional. Signs of an anxiety or depression disorder may seem obvious, but shame, stigma and fear may prompt your loved one to try to hide symptoms—especially if he or she has begun self-medicating in such a way that leads to addictive behavior. Be aware of the signs that you may be exhibiting. Do you find yourself making excuses for your loved one’s behavior? Have you learned that she or he is missing work or school without your knowledge? Are you cancelling social functions or becoming increasingly reluctant to invite friends to your home? Is your concern starting to lead to your own insomnia, causing headaches, loss of appetite and anxiety? You may “know” there is a problem before you are fully ready to acknowledge it. THE SHAPE OF SUPPORT Once you are aware that your loved one is suffering, you want to act from a place of compassion, not judgment. Whether it is major depression, anxiety, addiction or a less common condition, the individual likely will resist accepting the fact of the disorder. Struggling with acceptance while struggling with the symptoms is a monumental task— you can make it easier or harder. Start by remembering that no one is to blame. Don’t nag, preach or lecture. Next, don’t be embarrassed. There is nothing shameful or “weak” about mental illness. Your loved one didn’t do anything to bring it on, any more than someone who gets diagnosed with cancer or anemia or some other physical condition. Separate the person from the disorder—you can love her or him, while hating the illness. When you first see signs that generate concern, there are some simple questions to ask: When did you begin feeling like this? Did something happen that made you start feeling this way? How can I best support you right now? Take care not to slip into tactics that make it about you —guard against martyr-like attitudes, avoid “if you loved me” appeals. The boxes on page 38 features other examples of helpful versus hurtful things to say. Above all, let your loved one know that he or she can talk to you openly. Spend time with this person, even if she or he seems to push you away; your presence can make more of a difference than either of you may realize, often because you are providing distracting opportunities to “get out of their head,” so to speak. Such occasions may only provide temporary relief, but that may be just what’s needed to make a breakthrough in pursuing professional help and treatment. Indeed, as someone with a mental or mood disorder struggles through denial to find acceptance, you can help them along that road by gently but persistently reminding him or her that the condition and its symptoms cannot be conquered by willpower alone. Depression, anxiety and addiction seldom get better without treatment—and they may get worse. You’re not a doctor; you don’t even play one on TV. Your assistance is invaluable, but it is limited in its long-term effectiveness. You can offer to set up appointments first with a general practitioner and then a mental health professional. Accompany your loved one as necessary and mutually desired, whether it means sitting in a waiting room or attending family therapy sessions. Help by tracking and recording symptoms, triggers and reactions that you observe so that your loved one can bring these to a practitioner in order to get more fine-tuned treatment. CARETAKING YOU While helping a loved one who is struggling with a mental or mood disorder, it’s important not to lose sight of the first patient in this equation: you. It’s natural to try to push aside your own feelings about the effects that your loved one’s illness has on you—your reactions may seem selfish and petty in contrast to what he or she is going through, but they are completely valid . Acknowledging that fact to yourself is a crucial step. It doesn’t mean, however, that you need to turn these feelings back on your loved one—as noted earlier, that approach is, at best, counterproductive, and at worst, downright harmful. But it does mean that you need to take steps to get your own needs met. Finding ways to support yourself is the best thing you can do to ensure you will be able to continue providing loving and effective support not only to the person at the center of the situation, but also to the others who count on you at home and at work. Anyone who has traveled by air can parrot that key element of the pre-takeoff safety instructions: Put on your own oxygen mask first, before assisting another. It’s not infectious, but… You can’t “catch” depression, but don’t be surprised if a loved one’s depression or other mood disorder leaves you with many shared symptoms. You can’t help but react to the “loss” of the person when he or she is unable to connect with you on the deep emotional level that has made you close in the first place. You may need to avail yourself of some of the same treatment that you seek for your loved one, such as talk therapy and medication. There is no shame in it for you, anymore than for your loved one. Address burn out. It can be exhaust ing to care for someone with a mental illness. Don’t lose sight of the difference between doing what you think you should and doing what you can . Set boundaries and limits. You can explain that taking time for yourself or taking a break from the disease doesn’t mean you are abandoning the person; it means that it will allow you to be more available when the disorder hits crisis peaks. Seek out resources and build up support systems. Help is a mouse-click away. A simple browser search uncovers a vast array of Internet resources that offer both general guidance and superspecific tips for caring for a loved one with a mental or mood disorder. Establish a circle of go-to people who you can lean on for support. There are those who will lend a shoulder to cry on or an ear to vent to and those who will help fill in emotionally where your loved one cannot and those who will provide a healthy distraction. Ask for help not only to meet your needs, but to step in as necessary in helping the affected individual. Manage expectations. There is no quick fix to mental illness. You may have to go through discouraging periods where symptoms are temporarily alleviated and then the person relapses. This is normal over the long haul to successful treatment—and be assured that depression, anxiety, addiction and many other mental and mood disorders are treatable conditions. Hang in there and don’t lose hope. The Language of Love Do you know or suspect that a family member or good friend suffers from depression, anxiety, addiction or another common mental or mood disorder? Because it can be very difficult to fully understand their struggle, we wind up saying the wrong things in our attempts to be supportive. At right are some suggested phrases to try—or avoid. A few are applicable mostly to interacting with one who is depressed, but common sense should dictate how they can be applied in other situations, as well. Do Say: • I really can’t understand what you are feeling, but I can offer my love, compassion and support. • You are not alone in this. I’m here for you because you are important to me. • You may not be able to believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change. • I’m not going anywhere. You won’t drive me away, even when you can’t be available for my needs or if you try to push me away. • I’m sorry you are in so much pain. I’m going to take care of myself so you don’t need to worry that your pain is hurting me. • When you want to give up, tell yourself that you will hold on for just one more day, hour, minute—whatever you can manage. • Tell me what I can do now to help you. Don’t Say: • Believe me, I know how you feel. I was depressed once for several days. • I know you feel bad, but think about how many people are worse off than you are. • Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You have so much to live for and so many blessings in your life. • Don’t you realize how you’re hurting me and our relationship? • Have you tried chamomile tea/prayer/ positive thinking/exercise/fill-in-theblank? • Look on the bright side. • Why won’t you just snap out of it? Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of School Nutrition. Photography by Eric Michaud/istockphoto. SNAPSHOT • You might develop an unconscious awareness of your loved one’s struggle with mental illness without fully realizing the facts of the situation. • There is nothing shameful, embarrassing or weak about mental illness. • Finding ways to support yourself is essential in continuing to provide effective support for your loved one. BONUS WEB CONTENT It can be terrifying when a loved one threatens or attempts to take her or his life. What can you do when you see the signs? School Nutrition has compiled some expert advice on this subject and made it available online at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. Also look for an online-exclusive article on how to respond if you suspect an employee or coworker is suffering from a mood or mental disorder. Finally, our online Resources list also includes support for caregivers.
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