The how-tos and what-not-tos.
Mental health disorders are increasingly becoming a cause for concern, with roughly 20% of people above the age of 16 suffering from a mental illness in Australia alone and over 40% of Australians experiencing at least one mental illness in their lifetime.
Therefore, it is important to familiarise yourself with what these illnesses are, what causes them, what the common symptoms are, and how to assist a patient suffering from a mental illness, whether you are a mental health social worker or a concerned friend or family member of the patient.
The common symptoms of mental illness
Mental health disorders come in a bunch of shapes and forms, from depression and anxiety to eating disorders such as anorexia. Although each disorder has its own unique set of symptoms that define it from the rest, there are a number of symptoms to look out for that are common in almost all mental illnesses.
These symptoms are:
- Mood swings
- Erratic or unpredictable thoughts and behaviour
- A low sense of self-worth
- Obsessive and impulsive behaviour
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Detachment and withdrawal
There are also physical symptoms that can occur as a result of mental illness, such as:
- Weight loss
- Loss of libido (low sex drive)
Recognising someone with mental illness early on and taking the necessary precautions to combat and support them can save their life not only figuratively but literally too, as mental illnesses are known to be a cause of suicide.
Assisting mental illness patients
1. Talk to them about it
It is important to initially set aside time in an open, distraction-free space in an effort to confront the patient about their illness, in a caring and sympathetic manner. It is important not to force them to open up to you right away. Let them lead the discussion at their own pace.
2. Speak in a neutral language
Make sure to ask questions such as “Would you like to tell me how you feel?” rather than the more aggressive “I need you to tell me how you feel.”. The former question helps the patient feel like they are choosing to discuss their illness with you rather than feeling that they are being forced to.
3. Pay attention to what they tell you
Listen carefully to all that they have to say without attempting to argue with them. You may not necessarily agree with what they have to say but it is important to let them know that you understand their point of view. By doing this you are letting them know that you are open-minded and that you respect what they have to say.
4. As a social worker, work closely with the patient’s family and friends
In order to ensure the well-being of the patient while you are not in their company, make sure to keep in regular and frequent contact with all of the people whom the patient surrounds themselves with. Whether it be family, friends, colleagues or school teachers. Advise them to keep you updated on the general behaviour of the patient when you are not around. Also, make sure to keep them updated on any progress that you may be noticing in the patient’s illness.
5. Help them to understand their illness
Major importance in assisting any mental illness patient is to help them to understand what they are suffering from and to ensure that they know that they are not alone and that there are many people worldwide who are managing to live happily despite having a serious mental illness.
The only way to ensure that a patient benefits fully from seeking assistance with their mental illness is to continue to support them until they are either “cured” from their illness or until they have learned to live comfortably in spite of it. Once that is achieved, your job is done.
What not to do when dealing with a mental illness patient
Now that it has been made clear what to do when dealing with a mental health disorder patient, here are a few things you should not be doing:
- Don’t be forceful or aggressive.
- Don’t try and tell them what they are suffering from before listening to what they have to say.
- Don’t, in any way, make them feel inferior due to their illness.
- Don’t say things like “calm down”, “cheer up” or “don’t worry about it”.
- Don’t joke about suicide or any factor relating to mental illness, even if it is in an effort to lighten the mood.
- Don’t argue with them even if you disagree with what they have to say.
Dealing with a mental illness patient can be a tiresome and frustrating process, especially if you have never suffered from such an illness first hand. It is important to put the patient ahead of yourself and to put your pride aside. When it comes to mental health social working, the reward is well worth the effort.