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Tips for When A Loved One is Hurting

Matthew Cuddeback LCSW

           It can often feel that the field of mental health is a bit of a mystery. While there are certainly many areas that are incredibly complex and confusing, often times this mystery simply comes from unfamiliarity, fear, and a general lack of conversation. For this reason, it is helpful to have the hard conversations, and to discuss things that aren’t always easy to discuss, one of the most difficult is the complexities of loving someone who is struggling with their mental health.

           When we are talking about a loved one’s mental health difficulties, it can be such a profoundly helpless place to be. We don’t always know when or why a loved one is struggling and sometimes it is something we are acutely aware of. We don’t have the full picture; we might not have any understanding of what the person is going through and there are a lot of complex feelings that come from this experience. Maybe we have judgements, maybe we are struggling with our own needs, and maybe we just don’t know what the hell to think or do. For this reason, it is helpful to understand some key pieces of information that can help with this journey.

  1.     Everyone Struggles with Their Mental Health– Everyone has some level of mental health difficulty, seriously, everyone. Some of our struggles feel big and some feel small, but that doesn’t change the fact that, like your physical health, there is always something you can do to maintain or address it. We all go through some type of mental health struggle at different times in our lives. Let’s just get that clear, we all have this difficult experience. I emphasize this to push the idea that it is normal and the more comfortable with this fact the more we are able to feel comfortable talking about it and supporting others.
  2.     Trauma is Everywhere– Far more experiences are traumatic than you may realize. The loss of a loved one, a car accident, a scary experience on the el, these all lead to very real reactions in your brain that will lead to long lasting effects. So too do things like a belittling boss, an unhealthy relationship, a parent who struggled with substance use. As above, this helps us create a new understand of the people around us, and a new understand of our own needs. If trauma is highly prevalent, so too are the people who experience it- yet another clue as to why your loved one may be struggling.
  3.     Mental Health Struggles Are Rarely What You Expect- Often times we think depression looks like someone who is sad, anxiety is when someone worries too much, and PTSD is for people in the military. It can look like these things, but some of the most common things you see when people are struggling are things you wouldn’t expect. Often it is anger, avoidance, lies, pushing you away, etc. It is profoundly difficult to care for someone who is struggling, it is even harder when they yell at you, or avoid you, and lie to you. Understanding this is normal can help make it easier (though still not easy) to cope with.  Taking that a step further, boundaries will help maintain the balance of what is supportive to them and what is unhealthy for you, which leads us to-
  4.     Balance How Much You Put In- When we care for someone who is struggling with their mental health it can take a tremendous toll, yes it may be something you believe worth taking on, but that doesn’t make it easy. You need to be highly aware of when you are giving more than is healthy. Blaming yourself, staying up all night, hurting other relationships, are just a few examples of how caring can hurt. It is difficult to admit, but sometimes we have to say we can’t give any more than we have. Maybe you need help with the situation, or you need to back away or engage less, it is hard, but sometimes necessary.
  5.     Seek Help- We often feel we are alone when we are giving so much, maybe we are confused about what we are feeling or how best to manage things. It is good to talk to someone who has some insights into these situations and can be helpful. When we care for others who are struggling, we need help too, and certainly can have our own struggles, seek help when you need it.

There is so much hurt out there and paying attention to cues of when your loved one might be struggling can make a huge difference to them. Of course, caring for others is an incredible and worthwhile thing to do, but there are some things we don’t always consider because they are not part of our natural discourse. Hopefully some of the things mentioned above help to normalize what it means to have a loved one who is hurting and how best to manage this difficult undertaking. Even though you may be supporting a loved one who is struggling you must never lose sight of your own needs either.

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