Kate Spade, the designer who built a fashion empire on her signature handbags before selling the brand, was found dead in her New York City apartment in an apparent suicide. File picture: Bebeto Matthews/AP

A strong support system is one of the most important protective factors for those with mental illnesses such as depression. 

Knowing that someone genuinely cares can make the dark, gloomy place at least a little brighter. However, most people don’t know what to say to someone with a mental illness.

For starters, here’s what NOT to say:

“Cheer up”

“Think positive.”

“You have so much to be grateful for.”

“What do you have to be depressed for?”

Even though you may have the best intentions, such statements may increase feelings of guilt and send the message that you don’t understand.

Often someone with a mental illness wants to know that they are not alone. Saying that you are there is one thing – but truly being there for them is what counts. It’s the small actions that make the biggest difference. E.g. asking how they are and truly taking the time to listen to how they honestly are. 

Don’t say ‘I understand’ if you don’t. Sometimes we feel that we need to offer solutions – but often this is our need, and the rush to offer suggestions may make the person feel like you are not truly listening to them or understanding the situation. Take into account that they may have already thought of all the solutions are you suggesting, and may become frustrated.

Let your loved one know how you feel about what they’re going through. Let them know that you are available if they want to talk or offer to assist in any practical way – could you make them a meal tomorrow evening? Perhaps drive them to an appointment? 

Or offer to fetch their kids from school to lighten their load? There are some people who will never respond to "Is there anything I can do?" so offering to do something more specific is more likely to work.

Reassure them that although what they’re going through may be really difficult, it is also temporary, because you have also seen them at their best. Sometimes they may push you away, but it’s not because they don’t want or need you – it’s just a reflection of the inner struggles they are battling. The truest friend is one who stands by you even when you try to push them away, because they understand that you are suffering.

Educate yourself on their mental illness – by doing your own research and by asking questions that can help you to support them better. 

Understanding a loved one’s mental illness means that their symptoms makes sense to you, you will understand what the treatment entails and you know that they’re not just making excuses all the time. Knowing what the most effective treatment is, also helps you encourage your loved one to get the most appropriate professional help.

* Rakhi Beekrum is a counselling psychologist. Visit her website: www.durban-psychologist.co.za/