When a friend is going through a period of darkness due to complex mental health challenges, we might desperately want to be a source of resilience and strength in their time of need. The Gayle King to their metaphorical Oprah.
But even on our best days, it can be hard to come up with the right words.
When supporting someone we love who is living with schizophrenia, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and worried about offering up dud advice. Partly due to the stigma that comes with schizophrenia, a friend’s symptoms may also feel emotionally confronting for us.
It’s normal to feel awkward when we’re trying to support someone going through something we have no direct experience of. It can feel like being asked to judge MasterChef, when we’ve only ever cooked microwave ready meals. We might think we need direct experience to help. But to be a good supporter, we don’t actually need to have specific knowledge of the diagnosis at all.
So … how do we show up for our mates living with schizophrenia, in a way that benefits (rather than minimises) their experience?
1. Listen like a legend
Whilst there’s no hierarchy of symptoms when we’re managing mental health difficulties, living with schizophrenia can have its own unique challenges.
Handling experiences like delusions or confused thinking, as well as navigating the outer world through social interactions, requires a great deal of focus. And when someone is open about living with schizophrenia, they may have the added burden of needing to reassure people that they are not dangerous – and that the image of schizophrenia seen in movies is not based in reality.
Understandably, all of this can wear a person down. Want to know how to support them? Well, instead of jumping straight into Dr. Phil mode (totally normal reaction by the way), we could train ourselves to sit in that space with them for a moment. It’s easy to think, “I need to fix this!” and offer to call the GP, because that’s how we’re conditioned to help. But sometimes it’s helpful to simply sit next to our loved one and say, “I’m right next to you. This must suck, but I have your back until it passes.”
Check out these empathy techniques here.
2. Remember not to look too far
Whilst it can be super helpful and important to get information from professionals, don’t forget to directly ask loved ones what works best for them. Sometimes we’re so busy trying not to burden the person affected by schizophrenia, we go in search of solutions and leave them out of the process entirely.
Try asking questions like:
- “When you’re experiencing psychosis, what is one helpful thing I can do?”
- “Should I call someone if you want to hurt yourself, or do you have strategies that you find helpful?”
- “What’s something we can do together to stay connected when you’re feeling lonely?” (Spotify playlist/online video game/watch Netflix together remotely)
- “What’s a grounding task you find helpful? I would be keen to come up with some for me too!” (Brewing a coffee slowly, sipping a tea, walking the dog, playing guitar)
3. Be REAL without telling them their experience is not
When supporting a loved one with schizophrenia, sometimes we might want to say, “Mate, what’s happening to you is not real!” But for that person, their experience is very real. We wouldn’t tell a friend who’s freshly out of a break-up that they’re “not heartbroken”, so we shouldn’t invalidate an experience of schizophrenia either.
Many of the symptoms of schizophrenia are visceral, vivid and confronting for those living through them, so we must be mindful not to make blanket statements about what they’re dealing with. Sometimes, we’ll feel we need to reassure someone that they’re safe – for example, by reminding them the voices they’re hearing are not real. There are some really brilliant ways to do this without disempowering our loved one.
For example, instead of saying, “Those voices aren’t real, you’ll pull through”, we could try: “I know those voices are real for you and you’re really hurting and scared right now … I’m here to help you – what can I do?”
4. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries
As with all support strategies, it’s totally okay to have our own boundaries and practice self-compassion. Our entire relationship with someone doesn’t need to focus on providing comfort, advice or support strategies. It’s okay to reflect on our boundaries and needs within that relationship. And it’s also ok to lean on others for extra support. There’s strength in being open and honest, and having healthy boundaries.
If we feel that our loved one could benefit from checking in with a helpline or practitioner for more tailored and professional support, we can simply let them know that we love them very much, but feel they need other support options.
We can reassure them by explaining that it’s important we take time for our own self-care, so that we can support them for the long haul. This is not only helpful for our own wellbeing, but for our loved one as well.
If you or a loved one are living with schizophrenia and based in Australia, we have thousands of SANE Forums conversations you can join for further support. Our community is peer-based and moderated by mental health professionals 24/7, so you’ll always feel safe, supported and understood.
Schizophrenia Awareness Week is coming up on 17th- 24th May. Our friends at One Door are holding their annual symposium online this year so it is accessible to people across Australia at a time when we need connection most. Check out the line up!
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