Things that helpers & helpees can do

By Alice Holstein, Ed.D.

For The Professionals and Family/Friends

1. Adopt a holistic view of mental illness. This means believing that illness is a journey of growth rather than one of dealing with people who are damaged goods. Your attitude and beliefs make a world of difference in how you react to and have the potential to help the mentally ill. Look for “what is trying to happen beneath the surface.” Often there is a soul who has been emotionally wounded from both conscious and unconscious forces; such factors do not yield to the pills only approach to wellness.

2. Deal with the person inside, their potential, the possible miracle, not what you see and hear. Intention is everything, and you can make a lot of “mistakes” in technique if your intent is positive and hopeful.

3. Understand that labels and judgments hurt beyond belief. They can kill either the person’s spirit or sometimes their will to live at all.

4. Understand that clients may not be telling the truth for good reasons---i.e. because we are put on the defensive so much with “why” questions, because we don’t remember what happened, because we are mortified ourselves and can’t stand to tell the whole truth, because the system most often doesn’t have time or the skills to really listen to us, because we often don’t trust helping professionals for good reason and because we unconsciously react to the usual attitude that we are somehow just supposed to get on with our life. We try to please those who deal with us by putting a good face on things.

5. Adopt the attitude that you are there for service, not the “fixer” who does things to people rather than with them.

6. Learn Active Listening skills and listen as if your life depended upon it, knowing that the client’s may absolutely depend upon the skills that make them feel understood and valued.

7. Give us hope, especially the hope that we can be as well as possible without necessarily being “cured” forever.

8. Go easy on advice, but help us be more responsible for our own healing. Recognize that those stamding in front of you often fight Herculean battles and that we especially need follow-up support, adapted to where we are in our illness or recovery.

9. Educate us for recovery and encourage us to do the same, adapted to what we can do at the time so that we do not become overwhelmed. Sometimes simple things can make a difference; the total process adds up over time.

Work consciously on your own inner journey. How can we become whole if you are not? Your level of consciousness matters immensely. Sometimes it is the mere presence of a high functioning helper who is capable of lifting us up. The light within you acts like a tuning fork for all who come your way. Never underestimate the fact that one effective professional or ordinary person can make a huge difference in our coping skills and recovery. Understand that few of us can give you acknowledgement about how important your attitudes and actions are to us. We are often too busy surviving to see or express our appreciation.

For the Consumers

1. Adopt a holistic view of the illness. Believe that you can be as well as possible, which means better than now, and act “as if” you are or are working on that even if you don’t feel that way.

2. Get connected to at least two sources that represent support, whether church, mental health professionals, community and friends, etc. Stay away from those who give you negative messages as much as possible. Try not to listen to the negatives if you have no choice in the matter.

3. Set the intention to be as well as you can be. Intention is everything, even if the results don’t manifest immediately or even over a longer period. Everything you do that supports your intention makes a difference, like strengthening a muscle that suddenly kicks in to support you in a stronger way. Don’t expect miracles, but look for the small and large ones that can occur.

4. Be relentless in seeking and asking for help. Try new things with both courage and caution. Ask consciously, “how can I help myself?”

5. Reframe your experience, looking for the life gifts underneath the pain, the heroism you display, the tough but valuable path that may be part of your lot. Maybe there are spiritual lessons; maybe you have been called to endure a “dark night of the soul.”

6. Learn to be your own healthcare advocate, educating yourself, finding the “right” medication, negotiating payment dilemmas, being unafraid to be “the problem patient” that Bernie Seigel suggests as the ones who get well. At the same time, try not to antagonize the system, recognizing that it is most often the way you advocate that matters in being effective. Good manners matter.

7. Avoid dependency and passivity, recognizing that the system is often geared to encourage the opposite, from the medical model paradigm, the dispensing of drugs, the desks that serve as barriers between the professionals and us and much more.

8. Try to tell the truth despite the pressures noted in the section, “The Professionals,” that inhibit it. At the same time, be selective in what you say, such as the spiritual aspects you may experience during the illness, understanding that this may be wrongly judged by the professionals.

9. If overwhelmed by the recovery process or the illness itself, pull the mental switch that allows you to take a day or several to “take a vacation from your problems.” Then do all the things that give you pleasure during that time, however small. (This idea comes from the movie, “All About Bob,” where the patient takes the advice of his psychiatrist to take a vacation from his problems.) Such an attitude can make the difference in coping once you “return” from vacation.

10. Never give up; if you have temporarily lost hope, recognize that it can be created again and again. Reach for the help that can keep you going. Be proud of how you get up once more, or even daily how you keep going, of how you keep fighting the good fight. Claim your victories, large and small, if only to and for yourself.