The feelings caused by a serious illness can be very strong and can affect a person's behaviour. The person who is ill may be irritable, upset or angry; they may cry a lot, or withdraw so that you find it difficult to talk to them and support them.
You can help by listening carefully to what and how much they have to say. Acknowledging their feelings is important. For example, if they say they feel worried, say that you can understand that and it must be difficult, rather than saying 'Oh don't worry, everything will be fine’.
Of course, you will have your own feelings and emotions to deal with, and things may also be difficult for you. It can help if you say honestly how you feel, and then you can find ways of dealing with things together.
If someone is very anxious or depressed, this can make them much more difficult to live with or to help. A normally outgoing, sociable person may change into someone who is argumentative, irritable or withdrawn, and who refuses to talk to you. Someone who is depressed may be less willing to go out or lack the energy to do even simple activities at home. Yet depression usually doesn't make people look ill. Other people outside your close circle may not realise how much strain you are under, and so they may not help you as much as they would if they understood.
The important thing to remember is that these changes are usually temporary, and when the anxiety or depression improves, you will find that the person returns to their old self.
Don't feel you have to offer solutions or sort out the other person's problems. Just being there, listening, caring and offering a shoulder to cry on may be the most helpful thing you can do. The feelings and emotions that occur will not last forever, and you can give reassurance that they will improve with time.
If you feel that someone urgently needs help, for example, if they are suicidal or so depressed that they are not eating or looking after themselves properly, try to persuade them to talk things through with their doctor. Offer to go to the surgery with them if they feel this would be helpful. If they refuse to seek help, then you can talk to their doctor and see if they can help. Talking things through with the Samaritans by phone or email may help if the person will not see their GP.
Looking after yourself
In order for you to be able to help someone who is anxious or depressed, it is important to take good care of yourself.
- Learn more about their illness and the emotional effects it can cause. This will help you understand what you can do to help, and have realistic expectations of treatments
- Stay in touch with your own friends and get out when you can. Visit a friend for a chat, or go shopping. Take the opportunity to get out and meet other people, even if you sometimes don't feel like it
- If you live with someone who is anxious or depressed, try to make time for a break each day, even if it is just a walk to the shops or a trip to the library. This will give you something to look forward to each day. Ideally you should also try to organise a longer break each week, such as an evening out with friends or a trip to the cinema
- If you don't want to take a break, at least give yourself little treats to keep yourself going. Order your favourite magazine each week and give yourself an hour to sit down with a cup of tea to read it. Or make sure that you have peace to watch your favourite TV programme, have a long soak in the bath after a difficult day, or an early night with a good book
- If you are finding it hard to cope, get help. Talk through how you’re feeling with a family member or close friend. If this isn’t possible or you don't have anyone you trust, talk to your doctor. They can talk through your frustrations and feelings and can suggest other sources of help
- Protect your physical health too. See your doctor sooner rather than later if you have any niggling health concerns
- Find out about self-help groups and internet social networks