I’m a spectator watching from the sidelines. Watching and waiting… but what I am watching doesn’t warrant for any cheering or celebration. I am on the sidelines watching someone I love struggle with a mental illness. Mental illness is not obvious, you cannot see it. It sneaks in, hides in the shadows and slowly claws its way in the head of someone you love. What I am watching is it torment and dictate their everyday lives, slowly taking away their freedom, their confidence and sometimes, their will to live.
In Australia there are 9 suicides per day, 7 males and 2 females. 9 suicides. That’s 3,139 a year and unfortunately that number isn’t going down, it’s increasing. Even when we think we are making a difference, raising awareness, having more conversations, the statistics don’t move. For those struggling with a mental illness, there are those around them watching their loved one suffer and who wish they could help stop the suffering but often don’t know how.
I have watched and supported my loved ones go through their own mental health challenges and along the way struggled myself to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is my story of watching those I love struggle through mental illness.
Mental illness is different for everyone. There are different signs, symptoms and intensity. I’ve seen those around me suffer at the claws of depression, addiction, severe anxiety, periods of psychosis and eating disorders. Some luckily recovering to lead healthy and happy lives managing their illness, while others still struggling.
My first experience started back in high school. Looking back now I didn’t realise at the time how severe my friend’s illness was and how little support there was to her, her family and friends. My friend experienced a loss of a loved one and one way of coping was to take control of what she could in her life, her eating. This developed over time into an eating disorder. At the time we didn’t know how to help or where to get help. What do we say to her? How do we tell her we were worried? At what point do we need to step in and seek professional help? What help is there available? So many questions and little resources available. I wished we had of had more education on mental illness and how to access support when I needed it. As teenagers and young adults mental challenges and ill feelings were starting to become more prominent in our lives.
After that another loved one went through a mental health challenge. Still young at the time and with no understanding of what signs and symptoms to look out for, they began to withdraw. There were certain things we started noticing which were out of character, but thought it was a phase and told ourselves we were ‘growing up’ and ‘changing’. As time went on their mental health became so severe, they were admitted to hospital undergoing critical medical treatment and able to be diagnosed which led to ongoing treatment and management. More questions were raised in our heads and to one another – why didn’t we step in sooner? We should have known something more serious was going on…. But we didn’t, because we were not educated.
As life continued, I have watched many loved ones go through addiction, crippling anxiety and severe depression. As someone from the outside, it can be hard to know what to say, what to do or where to seek help. Now having worked in mental health, I understand that one of the most powerful ways to support someone you love is to continue to check in on them and ask ‘how are you?’ and ask again, ‘no really, how are you?’. Listen to hear and not to respond. Listen without judgement. Listen to them even when you have heard it before.
You don’t have to know the answers or know exactly how to respond but you can assure them you are there for them and will support them. Start noticing their behaviour and appearance and if something doesn’t feel or look right with them, don’t brush it off but continue to check in with them.
For those watching our loved one from the sideline, the most powerful way we can support them is to listen, be there, support and continue to educate yourself. Keep watching and cheering them on from the sideline. Don’t leave because they are down at half time feeling defeated. Inch by inch they will get closer to the finish line and they may need you to help them cross that line into leading a healthy and happier life.