Today is World Mental Health Day! The purpose of the day is to raise awareness of mental health issues and to advocate for positive mental health and against stigma. The theme of world mental health day is suicide and suicide prevention, serious topics that are, more often not, more heavily stigmatised than the mental illness that can lead to it. These are worthy topics to tackle.
I don’t intend to tackle them here. Instead, I would like to give a voice to those who care for people with mental illness. The husbands, wives, parents, sons, daughters and friends who watch their loved ones suffer and become unwitting companions in a voyage they didn’t sign up to and are ill-equipped to navigate.
Bipolar and me
It’s well documented that I experience bipolar disorder and, at times, I cannot get out of bed; cannot do my job and cannot look after my children. I say this in all of my talks. I also talk about the mania and the risks I can take; the bad financial decisions and the unshakeable belief that I am always right.
What is left unsaid is the impact that this has on my wife. She is the one looking after the children when I cannot get out of bed; worrying that I will not be able to do my job again; questioning whether my ideas are brilliant, or a mania fuelled fantasy. She is the one who picks up the pieces when I crash; she is the one who keeps my feet on the ground, and she is the one who tells me that it is ok not to be ok.
But what about my wife? Is it ok for her not to be ok? What about if she needs to be not ok at the same time as I am not ok? Who gets precedence? Is it the person who has the diagnoses? Who carries the badge? Or the one who is slowly worn down by the constant need to be supportive?
Most super-carers (as I will refer to them from now on) take on this responsibility willingly. They accept it as part of the bigger picture, but I suspect in this age of openness and mental health awareness, they are getting a bit of a bum deal. Particularly on World mental Health Day. I would like to give the super-carers a voice and share some of their insights and thoughts in the rest of this piece.
Thoughts from the Super-Carers
“I have learnt that you can’t “fix” your loved ones. Yes, you can and should support them but that support will take different forms at different times. Don’t go in expecting a clear structure and timetable as you won’t find it. It will make your bonds with them stronger and help will come from unexpected sources. Keep an open mind and don’t forget to look after yourself!”
“Supporting a loved one or friend should have no requirements or expectations on either side, except honesty. The aim is not to “fix” but just to be with them.
Supporting a stranger or acquaintance (e.g. at work, in the street, etc) should just be about giving time, attention and respect to someone, showing them that they and their experiences are important. Again, this is not about fixing anyone. For most people, healing comes from within, once they know that they are valuable. This is generally also true of person-centred therapies.”
“Whatever I feel able to do is enough”
“I feel helpless”
“Listening is very powerful. The art of true active listening, without judgement, agenda or response is rare. Sometimes people don’t want to ‘fix’ something and sometimes there is no ‘fix’ but being heard and someone holding that space can be very powerful and empowering”
“Supporting a loved one is not easy – you feel helpless often, like you just can’t help or make a difference. But you are, and it’s important to keep going. And to look after yourself in the process – I go running or cycling.”
“My husband went through a pretty traumatic experience over a decade ago that had, and continues to have, a profound effect upon him. At his lowest point I felt helpless and unable to help him. However, all these years later I realise that I was (unknowingly) supporting him by encouraging him to talk and, perhaps most importantly, listening and not judging him. More recently I have been supporting a close friend whose husband has made several suicide attempts, supporting her has brought back some upsetting memories for me, but it has reinforced the need to simply be there for someone and just listen. I have learned that you can’t provide answers or put people back together, but you can help them by providing a receiving ear at a time when they think no one cares so what’s the point.”
What can we learn from this?
For me there are a number of takeaways:
- If your loved one or friend is experiencing mental ill-health, you have to look after yourself first. Think of it like the oxygen masks dropping down in an aeroplane. You have to put yours on first. We cannot care for those we love if our own reserves are depleted.
- We have to learn that we cannot fix everything. This can be hard for those of us who are used to fixing things in our jobs.
- Non-judgmental listening is a skill that we have to develop to best support our loved ones. The Samaritans have a great tool that can help us with this.
- Be kind to yourself. You are enough
What’s Your Score?
I have been tracking my mental health score for some time in my head. It was a tool that a therapist gave me years ago to help me manage my challenges with bipolar disorder. It has been immensely helpful over the years. It is a simple score “out of 10”. At the time of writing, I am a 7/10. This means that I am on “ok” form.
The purpose of the score is to generate self-awareness and look for trends. Tomorrow, if I am a 6/10 then I will ask myself “why is my form dropping?” Am I getting enough sleep? How well I connected to family? Have I exercised regularly enough? Am I balancing stress with recovery? etc..
This tool can work very well for your loved ones to let you know where they are coming from and for you to share where you are at. I talk much more about it in this recent article.
How Are You Today?
I would like to invite you to share your score today on World Mental Health Day (only if you feel comfortable). Can we share the idea and create a global movement of people who are prepared to be open about their mental form on this day?
Use this link to download the tool and social badges.
Finally, I would like to say thank you to my wife for the support that she gives me with my bipolar disorder too and thank you to all of the super-carers out there.