Photo: Harold R Cologne
IT CAN BE REALLY DIFFICULT TO KNOW how to support someone’s mental health when you’re traveling with them. Many mentally ill people cope with traveling really well, but being prepared means that you can support them in the worst-case scenario.
Whether you’re their friend, partner, colleague or family member, these tips can help.
Note: These tips can also be helpful to companions who are mentally ill themselves — even if you have a mental illness, it can be really tricky to know how to support the mental health of others.
1. Familiarize yourself with their mental illness(es).
It’s easier to deal with something once you understand what you’re dealing with. In this case, it means finding out a bit about their mental state. Ask some of these questions:
a. What illnesses do they have? If you don’t know much about it, do some quick research to find out the symptoms. Ask your friend about their experience and look to the internet for guidance.
b. How intense is it? While all mental illnesses are equally valid, some people struggle more than others. Some people might describe their mental illnesses as ‘mild’ and others might experience severe, debilitating symptoms.
c. What is the likelihood of them needing help? As I mentioned, many mentally ill people are able to travel without much difficulty. Find out if your friend thinks it’s likely that they’ll have a panic attack, breakdown or depressive episode on the trip. In the case of really short trips and people with mild symptoms, it might not be necessary at all.
d. What sort of treatment are they undergoing? For example, they could be attending therapy or support groups, or taking medication.
Knowing a bit about their illnesses can help you figure out exactly what kind sort of support they need.
2. Learn about what upsets or triggers them.
With some mental illnesses, certain things could trigger (i.e. cause) a negative reaction. For example, if they have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), certain things might remind them of a traumatic event and cause a panic attack. For example, if someone has PTSD after being harmed in a fire, they might be triggered by the sight or smell of fire, smoke, and small enclosed spaces.
People might be triggered by the mention of their trauma, or by certain smells, sights or sounds. Sometimes, one’s mental state can be aggravated by flying, long bus trips, or train rides.
While not all triggers are unavoidable, it’s a good idea to be sensitive to whatever might upset or trigger your companion. This way, you can help them escape a triggering situation or emotionally prepare them to cope with it if one occurs.
3. Learn about what calms or comforts them.
Mental illness can be exhausting, and traveling can be really exhausting too. If your travel partner is struggling, they might not be able to do everything they usually do to relax.
Before the trip, ask your travel partner what they can do if they have a difficult episode. A hug? A distraction like a walk, crafts, or a funny movie? Medication? Do they need company or to be left alone? Would they need to sleep? Don’t make them feel guilty if they need to miss out on some experiences to rest.
4. If necessary, keep a list of nearby hospitals and mental health facilities.
Though it’s unlikely that you’ll need to take someone to a hospital or psychological facility, it can’t hurt to be prepared, especially if your companion is prone to difficult episodes.Find out where the closest hospitals are and keep the numbers of nearby pharmacies handy in case they need over-the-counter medication.
5. Let them ask for help when they need it.
Often, mental illness can be extremely debilitating. But don’t assume that a travel partner will need you 24/7. You’re there to travel, not to babysit. And focussing too much on their illness could make a travel partner feel like their trip has to be defined by their illness.
Instead, simply communicate with your companion and let them know let them know it’s okay to ask for help.