Mental Health Awareness: Support for supporters

Mental health is a topic often shied away from in the black community. The stigma associated with the topic is deep rooted and hard to get away from for many people. Thankfully, there are people dedicated to breaking this stigma and promoting and facilitating productive conversations around the topic. One of those people is Rwenshaun Miller, a mental health awareness advocate working tirelessly to change the way people think and speak about mental health for the better. Rwenshaun was kind enough to answer some questions, which are mainly focused on the people who play more of a supportive role in the lives of individuals living with a mental illness.

YB&:

In your opinion, what’s the biggest incorrect assumption about mental illness?

Rwenshaun:

There are a few incorrect assumptions about mental illness. I think the biggest assumption is that only a certain group of people can suffer from a mental illness.  With a large array of illnesses falling into this category, no one person or group of people are excluded from experiencing a mental illness. Whether it’s Depression, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder or Substance Abuse…it can happen to anyone.


YB&:

What are things that people living with mental illnesses and their supporters can do together to encourage mental health?

Rwenshaun:

I think a key component to promoting mental health is communication. Many times individuals living with a mental illness do not talk about the issues that they live with and this could have negative effects in multiple areas of their lives. If they do not receive treatment that they need, it could lead to a life-long struggle and unfortunately it sometimes leads to issues with substance abuse and/or suicide. A lack of communication can also affect their relationships with others. It is hard to help someone if you do not know what the issue is or how to support them. I think this is a societal issue because we do not openly discuss mental illness and mental health until something tragic happens, but this can be improved by creating spaces where people feel comfortable discussing the topic.


YB&:

Can you speak to some things that you think supporters of people with mental illnesses should avoid saying or doing.

Rwenshaun:

Supporters want to help, I understand, but sometimes supporters can be overbearing and this can do more harm than good. Unless a person is a threat to themselves or someone else, it is good to be direct but not too pushy. It is a very fine line that you must straddle, but each situation is different.

Supporters should also avoid telling someone to just get over it.  That does not display empathy and will cause the individual to be reluctant to communicate.


YB&:

How and where do you draw the line between supporting individuals with mental illnesses that impact decision-making and behavior and holding them accountable for their actions?

Rwenshaun:

I believe this can be tricky to gauge, especially in various situations.  If you are looking at it from the aspect of the judicial system, often times some “crimes” are committed in lieu of a mental illness and instead of this individual being treated, they are thrown in jail.

In other cases, mental illness is used as a scapegoat for individuals and they learn how to play the system. I think that if others are harmed from the person’s decision making and behavior, such as mass shootings or abuse, we have to consider the mental illness but it should not be considered as an excuse for the harming of others.


YB&:

Is there a risk for degradation in mental health for supporters of people living with mental illnesses, and if so, what is your advice for lessening that risk?

Rwenshaun:

There is definitely a risk for degradation in mental health for supporters.  As you care for someone living with a mental health challenge, it can be very challenging and become an added stressor as you attempt to learn how to help. Even if you know how to help and you are the most patient person in the world, it can become difficult at times.  Although you may care for that person, supporters should make sure that their personal needs are addressed first. Supporters should take time to ensure that they are not overwhelmed with being a support and recognize their own risk and protective factors. Think about the preflight instructions on a plane; please make sure your oxygen mask is in place and secure before you attempt to help others.

This is essential for counselors as well because we handle so many cases and assist with some many issues. It’s hard to knock take some of your work home with you. I try to make sure I am conscious of my own triggers and protect factors. When I am tired or overwhelmed, I pay attention to this and take a break.  Daily, I stick to my workout and meditation regimen. In short, I make sure my oxygen mask is properly secured.


YB&:

What’s your general advice for people (friends, family, partners) who are supporting individuals with mental illness?

Rwenshaun:

I would advise people that are supporting individuals living with a mental illness to be aware of changes in the person; such as routines, sleep patterns and behaviors. This could be an indicator that something is wrong. In addition to this, the supporter has to also be conscious of their own health and not neglect themselves. It is hard to help someone else if you are not as healthy as you could be. And this may be the hardest thing, but as a supporter, you sometimes have to realize that you are not the right person to help that individual and you may have to defer to someone else. It does not mean that the person does not value your effort, but it may not be as effective at that particular point in time.


Rwenshaun Miller lives with Bipolar Disorder and is a full-time advocate for Mental Health Awareness. He has worked in the mental health field for over 8 years, and in 2014 founded Eustress, a non-profit that strives to break the stigma associated with mental illness and encourage honest and healthy dialogue around the topic, particularly in the Black community. Rwenshaun holds a degree in Sociology from UNC-Chapel Hill and is currently pursuing his master’s in counseling.
Photo by Lauren Cowart Photography 

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