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Mental Illness- What's love got to do with it?

Anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, bipolar, psychosis, OCD, addiction... Statistics suggest that mental illness affects 1 in 5 people, though we suspect it may be even more. This means that it is more than likely that either you have a friend or family member living with a mental illness or you are experiencing one yourself.

Mental illness is a complex, multifaceted issue that often confuses and overwhelms both the sufferers and the bystanders alike. Research shows correlations between mental illness and poor gut health and nutritional imbalances, genetic factors, spinal misalignments, brain injuries, organ dysfunction, persistent exposure to stress, environmental toxicity and emotional trauma. There are literally thousands of different therapies, pills, programs and hypotheses aimed at improving our understanding and treatment of mental illness.

So what's love got to do with it?? Well, everything actually... From the moment of conception, we are wired for love and connection as it is fundamental to our survival. Not only do we crave to give and receive love because it feels good, but without it, we would die. As infants we rely heavily on the love and attachment with a primary caregiver in order to be fed and kept warm and safe. Children who are abused or neglected are often diagnosed with "failure to thrive" as their growth and development are stunted. Even if the most basic needs of food, water and shelter are met, if there is a lack of love, our survival is at risk.

Love is divine, love is magic, love is powerful. It relaxes, restores and heals us and carries us through our darkest days. It provides us with a sense of belonging, of worth and value. It inspires and motivates us to be the best we can be. Love offers hope, creates channels for creativity and expression and enables us to realise our dreams. Love is the rich tapestry that connects all of life and infuses each of us with a sense of being part of something far greater than ourselves... It makes sense then, that an actual or perceived lack of love can have devastating effects on the psyche. It can literally make us 'insane'. But here lies another tragedy - sadly there is still a great deal of stigma associated with mental illness and many people affected experience bullying, discrimination, abuse and rejection, which adds significantly to their initial distress and often prevents them from receiving the help they need and deserve. Instead of being embraced with love and kindness and gently guided towards the education, therapy, nutritional advice, structural support and other required help, they are often shunted by society and told to fend for themselves. Of course it is not always easy to love someone who is unwell, unstable or unpredictable, but shouldn't we at least try? Can we not look beyond the illness to the person that silently screams from the inside, who desperately wants to be well?

In African culture there is a beautiful word "Ubuntu". It roughly translates as "I am what I am because of what we all are." It is a philosophy that celebrates our shared humanity through kindness, compassion and understanding. It means that if you suffer, I suffer also, and it encourages reaching out to our fellow man, woman or child to offer our love in their time of need.

"Living with a mental illness is tough, but it's nothing compared to living with the judgement, hostility and abandonment of others because of it"

Mental illness is a sign of imbalance. It is generally treatable, manageable and usually reversible, given the right information, environment and support, but it does require an enormous amount of courage and self responsibility to turn things around. Essential to this is a feeling of being loved and being worthy enough to gather the resources that will restore wellness.

Caring for yourself when you have a mental illness

1. Acknowledge that you are struggling - often one of the most difficult steps as it requires awareness, humility and courage.

2. Seek support - reach out to people you trust and let them know how you're feeling. Engage a GP, psychologist, social worker or integrative health practitioner and build a network that holds you as you work to address key issues that led to where you are now.

3. Learn all you can about your condition. Read articles, attend appointments and support groups. Empower yourself with knowledge.

4. Keep a journal and learn to identify your triggers or high stress points.

5. Maintain a regular sleep, eating and exercise schedule and attend to any physical complaints you may have. Be kind and gentle with yourself.

6. Practice affirmations, keep a gratitude diary, acknowledge the love that surrounds you always- once you start looking for it, you may see that there is a lot more love available to you than you first thought.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about"

How to help a loved one who has a mental illness

1. Talk to them! Avoiding your friend or family member will add to their sense of shame and isolation. You may like to start by explaining what you've noticed or what you are concerned about and suggest seeking support together.

2. Educate yourself. Learn what you can about the particular condition/s your loved one has. Do not make assumptions and do not attempt to diagnose. Find out what's really going on by engaging with your loved one (and their support network if you have their permission). Reading articles, attending appointments with them etc. show that you care for and value the person.

3. Engage in your own self care practices. Caring for someone with any form of illness can be extremely difficult. Make sure that you take time to nurture yourself and seek the support that you need too. If you need to step back from the situation for a while, explain this to your friend or family member first (acknowledging that you still love them) and make sure that they have other people/ services that they can call on while you refill your own bucket.

4. Continue to include them when you can - meet for a walk or movie or invite them for coffee with a group of friends. They are not contagious! Even if they say no, the invitation will show that you haven't given up on them.

5. Remember that you do not have to 'fix' or solve anything and you do not have to have the answers. Simply being present can be the greatest gift to a person in need.

We are all responsible for our own health and happiness, but we are also all vulnerable to the stresses of life. Mental illness does not discriminate, people do. We each have the power to enact a little more kindness, to ask 'are you ok?', to show someone that we love and care for them, to offer our presence, to embody the spirit of Ubuntu. The magic of love lives within each of us.

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