October 9, 2019

5 Lessons from Supporting a Loved One through a Major Mental Health Experience.


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Eight years ago, a loved one went through an acute mental health episode.

Back in the day, this would have been called a “nervous breakdown.”

Though, we quickly learned it’s not called that anymore. In fact, we quickly learned a lot of stuff.

Like the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, the difference between a great mental health facility and a rubbish one, and the difference between a brilliant health professional and a crappy one.

Below are the incredibly valuable lessons we learned—may they be of benefit.

Mental health is everyone’s business—let go of the stigma.

One of the biggest lessons we learned is that this can happen to anyone. One in five Australians is affected. If it’s not you, it’s one of your loved ones. And if not yet, one day. You learn to not worry about people who don’t “get it” because they can’t see it. You learn that over time, they’ll go through it themselves and then they’ll be completely surrendered to it purely because they don’t really get a choice. Or, someone they love will go through it and they’ll understand a bit better.

It never was, and never will be about “hardening up.”

Or “sucking it up” or “everyone’s going through something so get on with it.” One of the toughest, hardest things a person will ever have to do is be laid bare. Living with a mental health condition or going through an acute mental health episode forces a person to be vulnerable and at the mercy of help when what they’re feeling most is fear and isolation. That’s what’s tough. That’s what takes courage and strength.

Navigate and advocate the mental health system like a champion—a tired, overwhelmed champion.

First, get a good doctor and go from there. Find out the actual diagnoses (this helps work out the best treatment), take notes in appointments, establish a plan, and be ready to change course pretty regularly. Be savvy and picky with health professionals. When this first happened, I so desperately wanted someone to help my loved one that I ignored all the signs of the crap psychiatrist we’d started with. That was a rough time, and it takes so much energy to start over with a new health professional, but we did change psychiatrists to someone incredibly brilliant and slowly, things got better.

Don’t go down too—lean hard, love hard, and provide constant reassurance

It does no one any good to wear yourself down while trying to bring a loved one back up. You need to take care of yourself throughout any big health event with family or loved ones, and we all deal with things differently. I, of course, learned that the hard way. Lean on others hard, harder than you feel comfortable with. Take turns to drop your bundle if you can—how great if we could plan that?!—because everyone will, and there will be times you’ll pull others up and times you’ll be pulled back up. Let that happen.

You can’t go it alone, even if you want to. If you don’t have a good support network in close family or friends, get it from a support group. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are plenty of professional associations and support groups that can help with this—there’s a bunch listed at the bottom of the article.

Provide reassurance and continue to provide it. There’s a real fear for people with mental health conditions that they are a burden to others, or that people will get “sick of them”—all you can do is give constant and ongoing reassurance.

Feel all of the feels, learn all of the lessons.

You might feel fear, isolation, out of your depth, lack of control, tired, defeated, and desperate for this to be “fixed.” But even in some of the darkest times, there are still beautiful things happening in amongst that and reasons to celebrate. There were still birthdays and baby showers and new people coming into the world. Acute mental health experiences can be deep and all-encompassing. It can feel like your loved one has been fully gripped and like nothing will work. I still remember all of us piling into the lounge at a family member’s house before a group medical appointment and thinking, “I feel so far away from you and where you are—how will our family ever get put back together after this? How will we ever relate to you again?”

But finally, one day after what feels like forever, you realise you don’t feel that anymore. You’re all on the other side. You got through it. You do get put back together, just a bit differently, a bit stronger, more grateful, more grounded, more empathetic. Relationships shift, but in a good way.

Life isn’t about “happily ever after.” It’s about feeling all the feels, learning all the lessons, constantly growing and evolving, and making room to move through “good” and “bad” emotions. Be grateful for good times and giggles, and know that better days really will come.

Help is everywhere and we will be forever grateful for all the support we received. Most importantly, share your story, change the narrative, and help shed a more positive light on mental health. See beyond the stigma.

Where to get more support:

>> Mental Health Australia
>> Mental Health America
>> Beyond Blue
>> Black Dog Institute


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