“How did I miss it?” We often blame ourselves for failing to observe mental illness in those around us. Our minds run in circles wondering, how was I blind to it all. ” I didn’t see it coming.” We harbor feelings of guilt, contemplating whether we were too consumed in our own worlds to notice the changes in others. We begin to feel ashamed as we realize our neglect for those living under the same roof. Or maybe it was the colleague we spoke to every day or the close friend we didn’t think to check on.
Whoever it may be, this usually occurs for one of three reasons.
2- Lack of knowledge regarding mental illness and the ability to notice early warning signs.
3- Unable to devote time to others as you navigate your mental health struggles.
Regardless of the reason, it’s not your fault. Wait. Unless you knew and refused to help, then damn that’s on you. No need to feel attacked, I’ma explain. If you’re aware that a family member or friend may struggle with a mental illness and do nothing, this may worsen their disorder. As the illness persist’s it may become more challenging to treat and overcome. Hence the importance of early intervention that proves to reduce the severity of a mental illness. Not only are you failing to help, but you’re prolonging a disorder and hindering treatment. Would your approach be the same with a physically visible wound? I wonder.
Now back to those initial reasons. Denial is a common feeling amongst family and friends who experience a loved one with a mental illness. Most refuse to accept ‘mental illness’ due to the stigma attached. It is more comforting to believe it is a phase, a temporary setback. The idea of not confronting it provides a safety net of it not being a reality. Denial is a defense mechanism to protect the unknown. Then comes comparisons.
“Mona from down the street is much worse, she hasn’t gone for treatment, so you don’t need to, you’re fine.”
Clinging on to dismissal. Family and friends compare mental health with one another to satisfy their belief that their beloved isn’t as bad. A big no-no. Everybody’s mental health journey is unique and cannot be reduced to what Mona down the street is going through. No two paths will be the same. You are rejecting their mental illness in the hope of preserving your peace of mind.
I am a firm believer in the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is Power.” So when it comes to lacking knowledge on mental illness, I believe there is an easy fix. Too many have succumbed to the notion, “Ignorance is bliss” denying themselves the best tool of understanding. Many miss early signs of mental illness ~ quite simply because they don’t know them. Equipping yourself with information puts you in a position of power where you chip away at the ‘control.’ The control of the mental illness on your loved one and your family/friend dynamics. Once you break the barrier of stigma, knowledge will welcome you with open hands. The choice is yours.
Finally, in some cases, family and friends could be experiencing mental health difficulties that prevent them from devoting their attention to others. They may be going through a period of poor mental health due to living with a mentally ill individual. Before diagnosis, there is a ripple effect within households. Tensions arise as family and friends become depressed and deeply anxious about their loved ones. Consumed with stress, many feel helpless. However, hope is not lost.
Lighten the load, take the time to get advice, and reach out. Begin with educating yourself on ways to show support while figuring out your boundaries. We all have limits on what we can give. There are many ways to take care of yourself and support your loved one. You can start by researching education centers/courses that cater to your needs and theirs. You can learn about different mental illnesses and symptoms. You can find support groups for them and yourself.
Early warning signs are vital before you approach the initial conversation with your loved one. Make sure you’re well-versed on potential signs of them having a mental illness. Note you are exercising a role of support; by no means are you fixing. Have an open, honest conversation based on research and what you have observed paired with how they feel.
Just like road signs that provide direction, this will too.
Early warning signs of mental illness:
~ Appetite: Dramatic changes in eating habits, loss of appetite, or increased hunger
~ Sleep: Changes in sleeping patterns, excessive sleeping, constant fatigue, or inability to sleep (insomnia)
~ Mood: Dramatic shifts/ extreme moods, the constant fluctuation of highs and lows, rapid changes in emotions
~ Isolation/ Withdrawal: Social withdrawal, avoiding family and friends, withdrawal from hobbies and interests
~ Daily functioning: Inability to carry out prior routine, daily activities like work/study or everyday problems
~ Substance Abuse: Excessive use of alcohol and drugs
~ Anxiety: Increased fear and excessive nervousness, worrying and paranoia
~ Detachment from reality: Hallucinations, delusions of things that do not exist outside their mind
~ Relating: Unable to relate to people and situations, inability to maintain relationships
~ Sex drive: Extreme changes in sexual activity
~ Illogical speech/ thinking: Disorganized speech with no meaning, thinking becomes irrational an influx of magical/fantasy thought patterns, belief in powers
~Disorganized behaviour: Behaving in an odd, unusual way, acts in an uncharacteristic manner
~ Suicidal thinking: Wanting to hurt themselves, inflict pain and thoughts of taking their own life. (Urgent Help is needed)
If a combination of signs occurs without a recent linked event or trauma, it may be time to have that conversation. Support your loved ones by offering them the necessary information and steps. It takes a community. Allow yourself to experience the chain of emotions while being proactive in your ability to help.
Mind Over Matter.