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“One day he was absolutely fine. Chatting and laughing as normal, playing with the kids, making plans for the summer holidays. Then everything changed. It was like someone flicked a switch and the lights went off. He became sullen and quiet. He didn’t smile at the children or make any effort to engage in conversation. He’s not been to work in weeks and just lies in bed. It’s worse when he cries… I hate seeing a grown man in tears. What I find hard to get my head around is that there was nothing going wrong - we were happy, he has a good job and loads of friends. I just wish he’d snap out of it.”

One in four people will experience mental health difficulties at some point in their lives. Chances are, someone you know is suffering from mental ill-health right at this very moment. You may not be aware of this because mental illness remains somewhat of a taboo subject.  As a society, we are getting better at talking about it but there is still a long way to go.

One aspect of mental ill-health that is seldom discussed is the impact it has on others. When someone experiences a period of clinical depression or has their ability to interact blighted by social anxiety, it will have a significant impact on the other people in their lives.  The most important thing to remember is that it is not their fault. Just as with any other form of illness, mental illness has symptoms that will interfere with day-to-day life. What makes mental illness hard for many people to accept is that these symptoms aren’t visible. We wouldn’t expect someone with two broken legs to hobble to the bus stop - it’s easy to see why that is unreasonable.  It can be harder to accept that someone suffering from depression and anxiety might be incapable of walking to the bus stop. It’s not that they can’t physically walk, but in the depths of depression, with the fearful, anxious thoughts swirling around their head, the person might well be unable to do it.
It has been said that telling someone with mental health difficulties to snap out of it or pull themselves together is akin to telling an amputee to grow another limb.  People can and do recover from mental ill-health and the most valuable factors that is known to improve recovery rates and reduce the risk of relapse are strong, supportive relationships.
Understand that the sufferer is not putting it on or behaving this way to get attention. Understand that they may do or say things that are out of character and potentially upsetting to others around them. Don’t take it personally, that’s just a symptom of the illness. Would you take it as a personal attack if someone with a stomach upset vomited on you?  Of course not!  It wouldn’t be pleasant but you would understand that the person was sick and couldn’t help it.
Understand that the sufferer might need time to recover. Just as someone who has suffered catastrophic injuries may need extensive physiotherapy to get back to walking again, people suffering from mental health difficulties may require support from psychiatrists, psychologists or therapists to aid their recovery.
Most importantly, understand that the sufferer needs you. Sometimes people with mental health difficulties might push those close to them away.  Understand that this is just another symptom of the illness. The sufferer might believe they want to be left alone, but isolation does not heal - positive relationships do. You don’t need to force yourself upon them, just understand that your presence and emotional availability will help the sufferer and show them that they are supported. It will also show them that you are making an effort to understand what they are going through.

Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
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01851 871094 / 07815662208