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Mental health - supporting a loved one from a distance

It's week 768 of lockdown (okay, slight exaggeration, but close enough) and some of us are reaaalllyyy feeling the effects of social isolation now. I am starting to understand why people get the urge to hug trees...

Lockdown and social distancing, sadly, make the perfect recipe for a mental health crisis and more people are reporting an increase in feelings of anxiety and depression. So, how can we support someone experiencing mental health difficulties when we can't provide them with the face to face reassurance we usually rely on?

Today, you won't be hearing from me ('YES!' I hear some of you scream). Instead, I've asked my nearest and dearest to share their experience of supporting someone with a mental health issue from a distance. That person is me. When I was in my darkest moments of anxiety and depression, I had recently moved to Manchester and those closest to me lived nearly 100 miles away, if not further. It is possible to emotionally and even practically support someone from a distance, and they're going to tell you just how you can do that.

'It's important you always make sure you're available and that they know no text, call or problem is too big or small. Whether Soph called me to chat about the rubbish weather that was seemingly upsetting her or the nightmare she had during the night that stopped her sleeping and then affected her entire day, both were as important the other.

I learned a lot about how to care for Soph with how she cared for me when I was in the darkness of my own depression and anxiety. I learned kindness and patience is key and being there (physically or electronically) no matter what time is the most important thing you can do.'

- Zoe, Sister

'Firstly, speaking from a mum's point of view, it is incredibly heartbreaking, frightening and frustrating to watch your child go through this and not be able to take it away from them and own it yourself. Everyday you pray for a happier tomorrow for that innocent little girl that loved life and had no worries, except how she was going to have to put one foot in front of the other. Lets face it, from the age of being able to speak until junior school, ‘depression and anxiety’ are just words to them and then suddenly, overnight, it's like they are hit by a bolt of lightning and a demon hijacks their mind.

At first I didn’t know what to do in all honesty. All I remember was the desperation in Sophie’s voice on the telephone and the sound of her tears as she fought to get her words out to me. I knew then this was bigger than me and that she was reaching out for help. I called a counsellour friend of mine as I was desperate to know what to do. To act quickly, she suggested that she called Sophie to calm her down. I will be forever in debt to her and to Soph’s cousin and her husband also.

I then started to source advise from this friend. Some support comes naturally, its called motherly love and there is nothing more powerful - trust me. I made sure Sophie knew everyday that she was loved and how very proud of her I was and that she was safe. There were never any time limits on calls and Sophie was aware these calls could take place at anytime, day or night. Sophie was also aware that there was mum and daughter confidentiality and that she could talk about ANYTHING!

Sophie and I spoke on a regular basis and she was aware that I would travel up to her if she needed me. Myself and Sophie's siblings, Zoe and Sam, also spoke regularly if we were worried and kept each other in the loop at all times.

Long distance support is extremely hard but it can be done with a lot of love, time and sourced information from professionals. Although it can be frightening sometimes, never lose hope that one day this will all end and peace will come home at last.'

- Audri, Mum

'When Soph was going through a tough period, I tried my best to support her as much as I could from a distance. A lot of the time, I would think how I have felt previously in a situation where I feel that my thoughts were overwhelming me and overtaking my overall wellbeing. My sister is one of my best friends and I felt it was time I repaid her for all the support she has given me throughout my life.

I tried not to smother her as I know how it can feel when it appears that all eyes are on your every move, like how you're feeling isn't normal. So, I just tried to let her know, whenever we spoke, that I was there whenever she needed me.

I remember one night when she couldn't sleep and I just sat and spoke to her for a few hours and let her talk about how she was feeling. I wanted to help normalise the anxiety she was experiencing so she didn't feel like she had to suppress it. I wanted her to know it's okay and that she can and would overcome these demons. I never forced her to confront anything, I just supported her when she asked me to. I know what it feels like when people are pushing you to talk about how you are feeling and, quite frankly, sometimes you are content in that moment in just keeping things to yourself. Only in your own time will you break that comfort zone. That's what I wanted Soph to do- to bide her time and build her strength so that when she was ready to get through the storm, she wouldn't just get through it but she would grow into the woman she has over the last 18 months. '

- Sam, Brother

'I guess I learned, from my own experience, just how differently you can feel or be made to feel depending on how someone treats you or interacts with you or even speaks to you.

When you love someone, its only natural to want to help them; to make the hurting and confusion and sadness stop. To make everything okay for them. But acting like they are a project to fix only adds to the feeling that they aren't as they should be. I have found that with all the best will in the world this lead to over use of cliches and platitudes. And at times I felt immense pressure from the simple phrase 'are you feeling any better?' With a sore throat or banged knee this is easy to know the answer with mental illness that phrase comes with a whole load of baggage - should I be better? Are they annoyed I dont feel myself? Dont they like me when I feel like this? Why is it taking so long? Is it wrong to not feel okay?

In my experience, I learned to lie and say yes, I'm feeling better. It didn't help. So, to help Soph, I asked her how she was feeling - she had the opportunity to express herself without judgement.

I asked what I could do to help - did she actually want my opinion or did she just need to be heard. 

I hope I made her feel loved no matter what. I love her for her. Not just you when she is funny or we go out drinking.

I tried to make her feel validated - she felt how she felt. That is how it is. She is not ungrateful! Telling her 'reasons to be cheerful - good job, lovely family etc - is simply harmful.'

- Leanne, Friend

'Nothing can prepare someone for a mental health crisis. Speaking from experience, when this happens, you feel like you are alone and cannot see out of the hell you are experiencing. Telling friends and family which is physically and mentally happening to you is a scary prospect because you think the reaction will be 'you are weird/ mad'.

When Soph spoke to me about how she felt that the symptoms she was experiencing were worsening during the adjustment to her medication, I was able to understand what she was feeling and reassure her that it was temporary and the medication took a long time to kick in and to hang in there. It's a painful process to go through and I wouldn't wish it on anyone, let alone one of my best friends. I was so glad to be able to help her because when you go through similar stuff yourself, it stays with you forever and enables you to empathise with someone else's experience. Empathy is really important and you don't have to have had a mental health issue to have that.'

- Lisa, Friend

'When Soph told me you had depression, I instantly wanted to help. She's always been there for me and I wanted to be there for her. I wanted her to know she wasn't alone.

I always tried to put myself in her shoes and think how it would feel to be experiencing those feelings myself. Not only did that help me to know what to say but it also helped me to be way more empathetic to how she was feeling.

I never brushed off what she said or made her feel like she shouldn't feel the way she felt. You know the classic 'Soph, there are people starving in Africa' type of thing.

I always made sure and made it clear that I was at the other end of the phone if she wanted to chat or text, but I also tried to make sure we still had fun chats and banter about stupid things, like we usually would.

I tried to reassure her that she was never alone and although no one ever knows how you're feeling, everyone is also feeling different emotions and may be able to empathise.'

- Rosie, Friend

'There is a few bits of advice I would give to anyone supporting someone with mental health issues from a distance, like I did with Soph.

Firstly, I would make sure you're in the right frame of mind. We all have good days and bad days and shit going on in our own lives, so it's really important to make sure you're in the right frame of mind to help a friend in need. When someone close to you is going through a bout of depression, it can really affect you and your own mental health. Obviously, you'll want to support them through it, but you should also take a moment to check in with yourself - make sure you feel okay to handle the difficult conversations.

Secondly, I would act normal around them. Check in with them as often as you usually would. Don't make every conversation about their mental illness but also don't ignore it. Let them talk about it as much as they want to without pushing it. Ask them 'how are you doing?' rather than 'are you feeling better?'

Lastly, I'd encourage them to seek help. Talking about their struggles with family or friends will definitely help, but ultimately it's important they themselves seek professional support. Just speaking to their GP to get a referral for counselling will likely be a step in the right direction.'

- Soph, Friend

For more information on how you can support a loved one with a mental health issue, visit the Mind website

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