Sometimes we're the ones experiencing mental illness, sometimes it's our friends and family...and sometimes it's a loved one's family member. It could be a best friend's mom, a cousin's boyfriend, or a coworker's daughter. We begin to find ourselves "supporting the support," or offering our encouragement to the ones directly supporting someone with mental illness.
Since this can be a difficult situation to navigate, last week I sat down with my friend Kate, who happens to be a wealth of wisdom when it comes to having a family member with a mental illness. Part of Kate’s story includes her mom receiving a bipolar diagnosis when Kate was young.
While each person’s experience is different (and a lot depends on what kind of mental health struggle a family member has), Kate shared some practical tips we can all learn from. Here are a few of the suggestions she offered.
It’s really important to show grace.
When Kate’s mom began experiencing symptoms of mental illness, her whole family had a hard time. Her sisters struggled with the change in their mom’s behavior, and her dad had to learn a whole new way to talk to his wife. As a family, they were still identifying triggers and learning how to help their mom cope—and learning to cope themselves.
When it became apparent that loud worship music at church was a trigger, her family began skipping church based on how her mom was doing. It was extremely helpful (and healthy) when others responded with grace rather than judging the family for being absent some Sundays.
Speculation will only feed circles of gossip, and aggressive questioning conveys a greater interest in drama than in a person's well-being. Instead of these responses, consider telling an absentee's family member, “Say hi to so-and-so for me” instead of asking why or passing judgment.
Actions speak louder than words. Invest in the person in front of you.
Kate recalls teachers and others in her life telling her, “I’m here if you ever need anything.” Yet because the relationship they had with Kate was only surface-level, if Kate actually did need anything, she wasn’t likely to come to them.
Certainly, these comments were well-meant. Yet the weight they carried depended largely on the depth of relationship already established. Offers to be there for people aren’t wrong, but they could come off as flippant or pity statements if an established depth of relationship is absent. Bottom line: invest in the person in front of you—as a person first and foremost, not as a victim.
If you’re close to the family, express your concern and check up on them.
“It meant a lot when people who were already a part of my life asked how I was doing,” Kate said. Her best friend would ask how her mom was doing and consistently check up on her. When the people closest to Kate asked meaningful questions and listened, she felt loved and cared for. They walked with Kate through the ups and the downs, and they continued to ask how her mom was doing even after things got better.
The support Kate received from the people she trusted was one of the most important things she experienced during that season of life. If you're walking closely with a family with mental health challenges, know that the love and support you're offering is one of the greatest gifts you could ever give.
Don’t use a serious topic as a conversation filler.
While for most people, “How’s your mom?” may be an innocuous query, when that family member struggles with mental illness, it turns into a deeply personal question. Unless you already have an established, deep relationship with someone, it’s best to avoid using the topic of mental illness as a small-talk conversation piece after church. Not only can it put that individual in an awkward spot, it can also be perceived as gossip. Instead, consider asking about plans for the day or offering news about your own life.
It’s okay not to ask about family every time you see someone.
When people constantly asked about her family, Kate remarked that it could ”feel like rapid-fire.” It was exhausting always explaining things or updating people. Sometimes Kate just needed a break from thinking and talking about what was going on at home.
As mentioned before, actions speak louder than words. Be creative about how you show you care. If you’re not walking through life day by day with someone, it’s okay not to ask about their family at every encounter. It doesn’t mean you’re ignoring their pain; you might be alleviating it a little by giving them a break from talking about it.
Today, Kate’s mom is doing great! Occasionally, people who haven’t kept up with Kate’s family will see her and jump straight to saying, “Ohh…how’s your mom?”
While coming in and out of people’s lives is inevitable, it’s important to distinguish between knowing where a family is at one point in the journey and assuming they’re still there, years later. It can be helpful to start by asking how things have been going instead of assuming someone’s health status has remained static for years.
Know each person is unique and will handle situations differently.
In Kate’s family, this was evident by her sister’s various responses to her mom’s illness. Each one was affected in different ways, and they chose various methods of handling the stress.
Everyone’s experience is different, and each person will have unique needs. While these tips resonate with Kate, they aren’t meant to be a cookie cutter approach. In fact, they’re meant to show just the opposite: that mental illness is a complex issue, and so is walking alongside the family of someone with a mental illness!
*Huge thanks to Kate Padilla, who was so open and willing to share stories from the past. Her family has used their experience with mental illness as a catalyst to help thousands of people through Mental Health Grace Alliance, an organization co-founded by Kate’s dad. If you’re looking for Christian mental health resources and programs for individuals and churches, check it out!