To answer the question of this article’s title, “Yes there is a ‘right way to help someone dealing with a mental illness.” There are wrong ways to respond to someone dealing with a mental illness, too. Many of them are preventable. All of them are inappropriate.
Let’s start at the beginning, which is usually filled with naiveté. We are not born knowing how to help someone dealing a mental illness. The average person needs help to gain necessary insights, to build on the compassionate skills that they already possess and to develop compassion if they lack it. That help can come from mental health professionals already working with the affected person, or those not involved with the individual.
Mental health professionals can explain the sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious differences among various mental illnesses. That information clues a person in to the thinking processes of the affected person, how the affected person ranks priorities and values, or fails to assess them, and why they’d be receptive to specific input or reject it. That’s a lot of information to absorb over time, though it promotes more productive interactions with the mentally ill person.
Educations about the subtleties of a given mental illness can inform listeners to potential dangers that can be prevented, how best to react to dangerous situations that arise despite preventative efforts, and how to help the affected person to interact with the rest of society in a productive way. Over time, the students of such endeavors will come to understand that mental illness generally falls into the three categories of thought, mood, or personality disorders.
Thought disorders include schizophrenia, in which the schizophrenic person’s emotions and behavior are predicated on false perceptions. The schizophrenic makes inappropriate responses to specific situations because they’re unable to discern reality from fantasy. In brief, schizophrenics experience a break from reality. From time to time, they can’t, and thus don’t, deal with it in their own best interest. Psychotics, on the other hand, simply lose all contact with reality. They don’t perceive it. Psychosis and schizophrenia thought disorders can prove dangerous to the affected person and to the public. Anyone interacting with such people needs to learn the techniques for calming tense situations and for preserving personal plus public safety.
Mood disorders are about inappropriate elevations or depressions of affect aka emotional experience. The affected person is not responding sensibly to whatever is going on around them. Depression, borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder are some commonly recognized mood disorders. The essence of such problems is that the affected person’s emotions are not processed productively. That derails an affected person’s life in many ways. The people in their midst need to learn how to assert themselves, how to prevent manipulative efforts from succeeding, and how to protect their own peace of mind from deteriorating despite the interactions with mood disordered people.
One example of the above is the necessity to learn how to respond to threats of self-harm in a despairing and/or suicidal person. There are no guaranteed ways to prevent someone from harming him or herself, but there is a body of proof for techniques that tend to work and those that provoke utter failure. Successful self-harm prevention includes soothing comments, assertive requests that the objects for intended harm be handed over or dropped on the ground (e.g., weapons, drugs, other dangerous objects), and a steady voice. Commentary about a better future, based on realistic factors, can also prove helpful. Such commentary requires training in how to do it effectively, though. However, there is an exception to the rule: heartfelt words can convey the love and optimism that a despairing individual needs to hear in order to cease their self-harm plans. No amount of training can replace such spontaneity.
Personality disorders are about individuals who fail to adapt to life overall and to relationships. Their expectations and demands are rigid, unrealistic and unhealthy. Thinking, behavior and everyday functioning are seriously impaired in people with personality disorders. They alienate others, and fail to accept that they are the source of the alienation problem.
In any interaction with a mentally ill person, insults, threats, raised voices, guilt trips and other manipulative efforts are sure to backfire on everyone involved. Educations with a mental health therapist can improve the quality of life for everyone involved with a mentally ill person. Knowing how to defuse a situation or how to compensate for it is the best response possible, even if the results are not ideal. No therapist can change the mentally ill person’s diagnosis. That is a given, except in cases of resolved depression.