Mental health is an enormous issue in the world today. Many of us know someone or are someone with a mental illness. The National Institute for Mental Health reports that 9.6 million adults in the US have a Serious Mental Illness, one that interferes with their daily lives, requiring medication and therapy in order to overcome its effects. This is 4% of the population, but these are only reported cases. The NIMH estimates the actual number of people suffering to be in the tens of millions.
As someone who is part of the statistics (hello, my name is Jenni, I have a bipolar 1 diagnosis), I have some insights that I think might be helpful to others. This has probably all been said before, but it bears repeating. If someone you love or even sort of like has been recently diagnosed, they may be reeling from the implications. You may be unsure how best to help. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
(in the interest of keeping things readable, the term “loved/liked one with a mental illness” shall henceforth be abbreviated to LOWAMI. This sounds vaguely Hawaiian, which makes me unreasonably happy.)
1. Be there. Please don’t disappear. Please. Your LOWAMI needs you. What we have is not contagious. We don’t expect you to have answers. We don’t want you to have the perfect words. We wouldn’t know what to do with perfect words. What we want is to know you are still our friend, still available for lunch dates or phone calls or bitch fests or gossip sessions. We still need these things. Maybe even more than before. These things make us feel connected, make us feel a part of life, keep us from feeling alienated and alone.
2. Take some pressure off. On the other hand, don’t expect your LOWAMI to be a social butterfly. If their diagnosis is new, they may be struggling to understand what it all means. They may need some time away from large events where they are surrounded by people. Having a diagnosis feels a lot like loss. Suddenly you realize you are not who you thought you were. To me, it felt like part of me had died. I needed time to deal with the loss. I didn’t want to be around large groups of people. Actually, I still don’t. I’m not sure when that will change.
3. Listen. Okay, so really. Listen. You may have to hear the same things over and over, but try not to get frustrated. Change takes time. You may want to reach over and throttle your LOWAMI at times. This is normal. Punch a pillow instead. Mental illness often involves a lot of circular thinking; what you are hearing is just a fraction of what is in our heads. It helps us to get it out.
4. Encourage. If your LOWAMI thinks throwing pottery might help, sign them up. If their therapist suggests journaling, buy them notebooks. Sometimes small steps are large victories. It may not seem like much to you that your LOWAMI made a phone call or went to the Post Office today, but for them it might have taken a Herculean effort. Appreciate that. Tell them they are spectacular.
5. Avoid Platitudes and comparisons. Hooboy, this one’s a biggie. Platitudes, for those who are not sure, are saying and advice that have been said and given so frequently that they lose meaning entirely. Saying things like “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” and “God won’t give you more than you can handle!” are surefire ways to piss off a LOWAMI who feels like a train wreck. Don’t say “I was depressed once too….” to a LOWAMI with clinical depression. Don’t say “oh yeah, my hormones wreak havoc on me once a month too…” to a LOWAMI who is bipolar. Just…don’t.
6. Seek to Understand. The brain is a freaking complicated thing. It’s pink and gray and mushy and amazing. The secrets it holds have only just begun to be unlocked and made sense of. If your LOWAMI’s illness has a handbook written about it (and I’m fairly sure it does), READ IT. I’m not kidding. Read it. Doing so will help immensely in your ability to understand what your LOWAMI is going through. It will help you deal with the emotional crises particular to your LOWAMI’s illness with greater efficacy and may very well help you maintain a firm foothold on your own sanity in the process. It also makes your LOWAMI feel like you give a crap.
7. Just say No to Quick Fixes. Black paste made from the smashed seeds of the Chihuahua plant in the remote rain forests of South America might have cured your second cousin’s sister-in-law’s niece’s nephew of his crippling ingrown toenails, but please don’t suggest your LOWAMI take it for his/her OCD. If you think something might help, it’s okay to suggest it, but don’t be hurt if your LOWAMI decides to discuss it with his/her doctor before buying a case of whatever it is. And please don’t use us as a platform springboard for your latest MLM.
8. Expect turbulence. If you are truly available to your LOWAMI, you just might find yourself on the receiving end of some pretty epic shit. You might get buried under an avalanche of tears, rage, angst, worry, sorrow, fear and/or any number of other violent emotions. Don’t be surprised if progress is two steps forward and one step back at times. Or two steps forward and three steps backwards. Or standing completely still. Or any combination of those. Over time, progress will be made, as long as movement is happening.
9. Offer Help. Bake cookies. Babysit. Make a meal. These things are invaluable to a LOWAMI who is feeling completely overwhelmed by life.
10. Pray. However you can, however you do, just do it. And keep on doing it. Have faith that the light will dawn, slowly but surely, in the end.