2. Be a Safe Place:
It can be challenging to understand what someone who is battling depression is thinking since their thought-processes can become distorted. So, their logic will not be your logic, which means your logic can not be their logic. Logically we want to say, "Think yourself out of it!" or "Your life is amazing, why can't you see that?" or "Why are you letting that get to you so much?"
The biggest suggestion I can give to you is do not judge. Do not belittle their battle or throw their struggles back in their face. If you treat their struggle as silly because in your mind it should be easy to overcome, you're going to make them feel like an even bigger failure and in the end your well-intentioned words will wound instead of heal. Let them know that you are listening to them. "You must be feeling overwhelmed right now with all that you're talking about." As if the normal responsibilities of life, career, family, religion, hobbies, etc. aren't enough, imagine handling all that while managing a mental illness!
So let them cry. Let them be frustrated. Let them talk it out, even if it makes no logical sense to you, it makes perfect sense to them. Yes, their healing will come through a change in thought-processes, but they need to know that you won't harshly criticize their faulty thinking until that day comes. Love is a medicine best prescribed in over-dosage.
And if they just feel like they can't be alone, do what you can. Whether it be inviting them to dinner, letting them crash on your couch for a few hours, taking them on a walk or just talking on the phone, be there for them. And if they talk of wanting to hurt themselves, please take their words seriously. Walk yourself through these questions and if call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or if your gut tells you that it's an emergency, call 911.
3. Be Informed:
If your loved one has been diagnosed with a specific mental illness or condition (and do NOT view either as a negative), I would recommend making it your mission to learn as much about their condition as possible. Read books, watch seminars, talk to therapists, take classes, etc. While a medical professional can and will help them, you are with this person far more often than their counselor or doctor. These educational efforts will help both you and the person you are trying to help as you will better understand what is going on and how it affects them and their relationship with you. NAMI has a wonderful website and online resources to help, and try an online search for mental health classes in your area.
4. Be Patient:
Mental illness is not a quick fix. I don't say that to discourage you or your loved one, but like any serious medical condition it will take continual effort, encouragement, support, love and patience. And humor. Never discount humor on a rough day! One of the great friends I've ever had knew that even if I was hurting too much to laugh, her smile and jokes still meant the world. So she would patiently keep cracking jokes until I cracked a smile.
As cliche as this sounds, be a cheerleader. Celebrate every good day, every positive effort and every victory in your loved one's life. I'm not saying sacrifice your own needs and pursuits, but you may have to make some extra efforts to be a source of light and good for them. And that can get discouraging if your actions or words don't show immediate results in changing your loved one's struggling state, but keep trying! Don't give up. I promise you that what you are doing IS making a big difference and is a lifeline that they will hold onto as they strive to swim to safety.
5. Be Strong:
I know how difficult of a trial it can be to watch someone you care deeply about struggle so much with inner demons that you would give anything to destroy. Their hurt becomes your hurt because you love them and you wish you could take it all away for them. But you can't. No one can. All any of us can do is help fight that fight. We can stand shoulder to shoulder with them and face those dragons together.
That being said, you are still human. You will make mistakes. You will say or do the wrong thing. It is ok to say that you don't have all the answers, but that you are willing to help find them. Do NOT feel guilty for taking time for yourself or meeting your own needs and taking care of the responsibilities in your own life. You do the best you can the best you know how and at the end of the day you have to leave it at that. You can be a healing angel in their lives but not the god of it. Take care of yourself or you'll both start struggling!
Also, in this superficial world the greatest strength is found in leaving ourselves vulnerable. By choosing to love, to support, to encourage and to forgive someone who is struggling with a mental illness, we are demonstrating the truest and deepest form of courage there is. And in the end, this is the type of courage that will make the biggest difference. So say what you are afraid to say. Say you love them. Say you appreciate them. Say you need them, care for them, that they inspire you or motivate you or that their actions impact your life. All the things we are NOW saying about Robin Williams...after he has passed on. Don't wait until it is too late to say what you feel; tomorrow is too late.
Mental illness still carries stigmas that must be eliminated in our society, in our homes, in our offices and in our schools. Would we mock or ostracize someone with cancer, diabetes, Parkinsons or MS? No. We cheer on someone who is battling or has defeated cancer. Why should we ever show less respect and honor for someone who is battling the dark demons of mental illness?
As Robin Williams' character Patch Adams said, "You treat a disease, you win, you lose. You treat a person, I guarantee you, you'll win, no matter what the outcome."