SUPPORT: Just Listen

By Gill Seaton-Jardine Counsellor/Psychotherapist

We often talk about the person who is living with mental illness, how it might be for them, strategies to help deal with it all from day to day, sources of help and support they may reach out to, but we don’t often talk about the carers and support workers trying to be there for them and offer whatever it is that they need to get through the demands of every day life. This is clearly an enormous subject when you consider that each person has different needs and are likely to need, and be looking for, different kinds of help. The word ‘carer’, and indeed ‘support worker’ can mean anything from a live-in carer who is totally responsible for the physical and mental care of another, to a neighbour who pops in each day to prepare lunch or check that the other person is okay. The first carer could be a spouse, a sibling, a son/daughter, any other relative or, a paid professional carer. Their role would very much depend on the specific needs to be met but would also depend on the skill, abilities, willingness and commitment of the carer/support worker. With physical need there may be a need for physical fitness in order to lift, manoeuvre from bed to chair, make more comfortable and actually support physically. There are probably clear requirements of the carer/supporter who will likely be aware of their own limitations and will know when to ask for further support. That support may be from other family members or more formal sources. Whoever is doing the caring, it is a daunting and often exhausting task requiring the carer to be available every day always needing to put the other person first. This can be particularly hard for the elderly when frequently the carer is the spouse who may have physical limitations themselves.

So what about support for mental illness – do we encounter similar difficulties? Well, we don’t necessarily require physical fitness and strength to support a person with mental health challenges,so what do we require? We require, patience, empathy, kindness, tolerance, compassion and acceptance – a lot to ask you may say and you would be right. I have the honour to be a professional consultant working with this wonderful platform ‘Minds Anonymous’, so called toprotect the identity of contributors who take the opportunity to share their experiences with mental illness without giving away who they are – something they don’t feel able to do openly for fear of other peoples’ reactions. So here we can identify the first difficulty for carers and support workers wanting to work in mental health – it may not be obvious what is wrong, and therefore how you might be able to help. It is perhaps this fear of people knowing that maintains the stigma that has always haunted this area thereby leaving many people with no help and feeling totally alone with their condition. This is very understandable. If you want to help, you want to get it right but if you can’t understand what the needs are, you are unlikely to take the risk in case you do something wrong. I would ask you to take the risk. A person with a broken leg is not defined by their broken leg. They are a whole person who has a leg that doesn’t work properly while its broken. No mystery here, you can see the broken leg so you know what is wrong and you know what needs to be done. If a person has mental health challenges, once again, there is one part that is out of step at the moment. As you would be patient with the person with the broken leg, it could be really helpful to be patient with the second person – try to give them a little time. Listen to what they say. You don’t necessarily need to do anything or know all about the problem – just listen. In so many cases it can help if someone allows you to be you, allows you to talk about what is on your mind. You don’t need to be a psychologist or a psychiatrist – just listen.

I wonder if one of the factors about mental illness that makes it so scary is its limitlessness (yes, do read that one again!!). In some forms of mental illness, the divide between fantasy and reality becomes blurred causing the person to find it hard to distinguish between the two. This can lead to fantastic stories about experiences, some good and exciting, some bad and frightening. This person may well want to share these stories talking about a wonderful ride on a magic carpet taking in all sorts of extraordinary, magical things seen on the journey. As I said, the possibilities are endless because they are not real. They also may be very scared of monsters encountered, chasing them or threatening to harm them or those they love. In both cases, they may feel very alone with these experiences which, if shared with a patient, caring person could at least become a little more manageable. Of course, in the case of struggling with fantasy versus reality, they may need to see a psychiatrist or psychologist for treatment of, what can be, alarming, bizarre symptoms so a carer or support worker would be well advised to suggest an appointment with the appropriate GP.

My final word on the subject today is please don’t hold back if someone needs help. We all need help at some time in our lives even if we don’t want to admit it. We don’t need to understand everybody else’s experience in order to offer them a helping hand, even if it is mental health problems. After all, we all might enjoy the occasional ride on a magic carpet!!