Mental Health and Chronic Illness: How to Support Your Loved Ones

A lifelong friend of mine was diagnosed with Crohn’s Colitis one year ago, a diagnosis that came from a lengthy period of health struggles, diet experimentation and doctor appointments. She still deals with these things on a daily basis, but now has a name for her pain and a plan to overcome it. In the year since that diagnosis, I have been witness to the ups and downs of chronic illnesses. In that time, it has become clear that they have a multi-faceted effect on the life of an individual and their loved ones. Chronic illnesses do not just impact your body, but your mind as well. Here are some ways you can support and aid the mental health of your loved ones through their journey with chronic illness:


  • Accessibility & Availability: When facing the inconsistencies of chronic illness, a strong, reliable, support system is necessary. A conscious effort to be there for your loved one, to reach out to them, to be present in your interactions with them; these simple displays of support foster a sense of trust which is necessary for healthy relationships.


  • Listening: It is easy to get swept up in problem-solving, and while solutions are necessary, do not forget to take a step back and listen to your loved one. Give them the opportunity to vocalize what they need in that moment, and move forward. The best support and validation can be as simple as knowing they are heard.


  • Educating and Resources: Don’t always rely on your loved one to inform you on their health and health struggles. Take the initiative to educate yourself and investigate into various resources for you and your loved one. Not only is this a display of love and support, but it takes away the burden of them having to educate you on their diagnosis.


Here are some things to avoid:


  • Passive Suggestions: It is important to look out for your loved one's best interest, but not all advice is productive. Rather than making passive suggestions (e.g. “you shouldn’t be eating that”) which minimizes what the individual is experiencing, propose a reasonable, well-informed alternative (e.g. “if you like that, this food might be a good substitute for you”).


  • Comparison: Chronic illnesses and their symptoms are as individual and unique as a fingerprint. While unsolicited comparisons may be well-intended, they often invalidate the severity of a symptom, rather than display understanding or support. Instead, listen to your loved one as they share their experiences.


  • Unreasonable expectations: There is a fine line between a productive push in the right direction and an unreasonable expectation. Keep in mind that your body and your loved one’s body may have different staminas! Often, it can be more harmful, mentally and physically, to push someone beyond their boundaries. Remember that you have different thresholds!


Chronic illnesses are painful, isolating and complex. Showing up for your loved one, being supportive, kind, and compassionate may not cure their illness, but it is a vital aspect of their fight against it.


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Melissa is a 20-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, heading into her fourth year of study. She is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Arts with a major in English and History and a minor in Religion. She has a passion for reading and writing, and intends to pursue a career in publishing.


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The views and opinions expressed in Community are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Madiha Foundation.

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