6 Ways To Help A Family In Mental Health Crisis

There are ways to help a family in mental health crisis.

Mental health is stigmatized in our society, and some people, especially those with no experience, find it really hard to talk about. But don’t let this fear paralyze you. 

When your family member is hospitalized for mental illness, no one sends a casserole. But damn, you wish they would. 

Friends, acquaintances, and co-workers who are not familiar with mental illness are often afraid of taking a misstep, so instead they opt for what seems safe — doing nothing. But not having the community rally around in support, like it is supposed to during any time of crisis, can make a person with mental illness and their family feel even more shamed and stigmatized. 

Here’s what you can do to cut through the shame and stigma of mental illness by supporting a family during a mental health crisis (plus a few things you should avoid). 

1. Send the casserole. 

This is about so much more than food. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a casserole; it could be cookies, fresh fruit, or a rotisserie chicken. In our society, food is love, and when a family is going through a crisis or change, whether it is an illness, a death, or even a new baby, sending food is an easy and accepted way to care for them. 

For a family in mental health crisis, sending food shows that you understand that they are dealing with a health issue, and that you are going to love them and support them during this time, just like you would in a more “normal” health crisis. This means the world.

Plus, there is a reason food is our go-to option for supporting people during crises. When you are physically and emotionally maxed out, the last thing on your mind is what to make to dinner; simple, quality nutrition can make you feel at least slightly better. 

2. Offer respite care.

Mental health hospitalizations are often long and drawn out. Even after someone is released from the hospital, there are therapy appointments, doctor appointments, legal meetings, and sometimes day programs to follow up with. All of this means that the caregiver — the spouse, parent, or child — is often in desperate need of some self care. 

If the family has kids, offer to babysit. Offer to drive the patient to an appointment, or just come over and sit with them for a while. Caring for a loved one through a crisis is incredibly exhausting and demanding. By offering respite care and giving the main caregiver a short break, you are facilitating rejuvenation that will have a ripple effect throughout the whole family. 

3. Don’t be afraid to say the wrong thing. 

Mental health is stigmatized in our society, and some people, especially those with no experience, find it really hard to talk about. But don’t let this fear paralyze you. 

Talk to the family, and know that just being there and making yourself available to them during this time means so much, even if you put your foot in your mouth a time or two. 

4. Educate yourself.

There’s a lot to learn about mental illness. Chances are the family in crisis is on their own steep learning curve, figuring out how to navigate a system where the odds seem stacked against them. Don’t add to this burden by asking them to educate you. 

Instead, learn about mental illness, treatments and stigma. Learn how to support the family and the patient, in the short-term and the long-term. Learn how to be sensitive and how to talk about mental illness in a compassionate way. The National Alliance On Mental Illness is a great place to start. 

You don’t need to know the specifics of the situation to do this. If the family feels like sharing a diagnosis, they will, but you shouldn’t feel entitled to information. Instead, focus on learning about mental illness and mental health in general. There’s plenty to learn.  

5. Don’t offer your solution. 

We’ve all heard a story about someone who has healed their depression by walking, taking fish oil tablets or diffusing essential oils. Please, during this time, keep suggestions of supplements, self-healing or science to yourself. Unless you are a trained mental health clinician, you shouldn’t offer advice to the family, no matter how good your intentions. 

Finding a treatment plan that works is one of the biggest challenges in dealing with mental illness. Know that the patient, the family and their doctors are all working tirelessly to craft a treatment plan that makes a difference. This is a slow, frustrating and painful process. Acknowledge that, and respect the fact that mental illnesses are biological diseases that require complex medical care. 

6. Be prepared to hear real answers. 

So often we ask questions like “How are you?” without expecting a genuine answer. By mindful of these questions during a mental health crisis, because chances are the honest answer is, “I’m shitty.” If the family is dealing with chronic mental illness a seemingly simple question like, “how is your dad?” can bring up a lot of emotion. 

Don’t ask these questions unless you are ready to hear an honest response — that the family is exhausted, or the patient is relapsing, or that, yet again, they are changing providers or medications. Of course, sometimes you will get a positive answer — that progress is being made — but don’t expect that. Be ready for the truth. 

Better yet, don’t ask these questions at all. If your loved one wants you to know they will share. Instead, offer the same sentiment with a statement. “I know this must be really hard for you, and I’m hear to listen or help any time,” conveys everything. “I often think of your mom, and really hope she’s doing better” is simple and opens the door for the family to share more information if they choose. 

Never ask, “are you ok?” during a time of crisis. It’s a crisis — no one is ok! They are redefining their health and their family, and dealing with some scary stuff. Eventually, yes, they will redefine normal and be ok – better than ok even. But for now, skip that one. 

One of the scariest aspects of mental illness is the isolation. Stigma prevents people from getting help, and can make a family’s crisis even more difficult to deal with. By offering your love and support – even if it is at times awkward – you can help to make a family in mental health crisis feel valued and understood. That breaks down stigma a little bit at a time and moves us all toward a better system for mental health care. 

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