Life with a mental illness is frequently challenging. This can be exacerbated by the words, actions, and attitudes of the world around us.
Simply put, the world is not a mental illness-friendly place. Some of the patterns that make it so are so pervasive that even those of us coping with mental illness engage in them. We’re talking about some things we can do to make our world a bit more mental illness-friendly.
Let me be clear: this isn’t about coddling folks with mental illnesses. This is about small adjustments that can make space for people with mental illnesses to exist without feeling stigmatized, and for the people around them to be better able to navigate that.
Frankly, a lot of this stuff would just be helpful for all people, in general. When you want to offer emotional support to your friend suffering from a mental illness, here are six ways to do so.
Here are 6 ways to help the people you love feel okay with not always feeling okay:
1. Don’t use diagnoses as slurs or punchlines
These. Words. Have. Real. Meanings.
This is pretty easy. Stop using mental health diagnoses in the context of anything other than mental health diagnoses.
I’ve written talked before about why using the whole “crazy” family of insults sucks. I want to close up a loophole folks seem to be exploiting to get around that by including armchair “diagnosing” here.
Have you ever noticed people don’t take to social media to speculate about the mental health status of people they like and respect? However, these days, knowing people will get mad if they say that the strange guy living in the White House is “crazy,” a lot of folks are suddenly walking DSM-5s, able to rattle off specific diagnoses and justify doing so by saying, “I’m concerned. I really think he might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder/Bipolar Disorder/Kleptomania/this other thing I just found out exists.”
Stop doing this. This is, in a way, worse than the old school “He’s crazy,” because you are taking specific diagnoses that people around you may actually be living with and applying them to people whose actions you don’t like — because, again, it’s never the likable people we have these conversations about.
2. Check your assumptions about laziness
Last year it broke my heart when I heard a close friend say they believe “writer’s block” is an excuse people use when they don’t want to try, right at a moment when I was shoulders-deep in a depressive episode that had me feeling physically and mentally unable to produce any written content for the better part of a year. Seriously, I felt like the words were floating around my brain somewhere and I just couldn’t get them out.
As a decade-long “depressionista” (thank you, Twitter followers, for giving me that term), I have faced down a lot of assumptions about my crippling symptoms being just an excuse to lay on my couch and rewatch Grey’s Anatomy again.
Let’s clear this up: The people in your life who are struggling with mental health issues have hopes, dreams, goals, and aspirations just like anyone else. No one sets out to see how much time they can spend paralyzed by their own mind. So don’t decide that everything that doesn’t look like work as you know it is “laziness.”
Yes, everyone probably should be able to do all of the things, but not everyone can do all the things. Not because they are too hipster/lazy/uncool to learn, but because we all have different physical, intellectual, and emotional capacities, and that means we all have different things we can and can’t do, and that’s okay.
We can’t declare folks lazy for not being able to do stuff no matter how useful it is because we don’t know where they are coming from. Yes, even a friend we perceive as being of sound mind and body. Because you just don’t know.
3. Stop glorifying busyness
I can’t speak for all mental illnesses, but I know depression simultaneously frees up a bunch of time and fills your calendar. How so? Well, all of the crippling self-doubt and panic leaves little time for much else, even if that doesn’t look like a lot on paper.
One of the hardest parts of engaging with others when I’m experiencing a depressive episode is listening to folks out-busy each other as I sink deeper and deeper into my pit of inadequacy because so much of my energy is focused on simply remembering to breathe in and out.
By all means, live your life, and if your life is frequently busy, that’s your business. But please, stop participating in the cult of busyness and buying into the notion that the person with the most packed calendar wins.
Whether it’s announcing that all your weekends are booked up for the next 3 months (in any context other than “Let’s make weekend plans, when are you free?”) or casually slipping into a conversation that you always work 90-hour weeks (unless your employer is abusing your time, in which case, please tell people about that!), the “Look at how big my busy is!” boasting has to stop.
Not only is it obnoxious, but it sends the message that “not constantly busy” = loser/failure/lazy. This is detrimental to so many folks (it took me until my mid-30s to get okay with how often I want to stay in), and for folks with mental illnesses, it furthers the “you are broken and failing” narrative.
4. Check in when people screw up
The friend who is suddenly flaking on plans. The work colleague who has dropped the ball on a couple of projects. The family member who can’t seem to do anything right lately. Reach out to those folks.
We perceive these behaviors as “failing” and letting us down. We think people are willfully not doing what is being asked of them and wonder why they refuse to pull their weight. These people annoy us, make our lives harder than they need to be, and generally annoy off.
Here’s the thing, though: Depressive episodes already come with a general air of failure.
I become forgetful and easily confused. Everything takes a herculean effort. And even when I think I’m paying attention to detail, I get it very, very wrong. I miss deadlines, feel awful, start dodging emails, hiding, missing things I was supposed to be doing, hating myself, and generally making things worse.
All the while people are getting angrier and more frustrated with me and when they finally get ahold of me I receive a lecture about how I’ve let them down, caused them stress, and so on. Which, for me, makes everything worse, causing me to hide even further from people so as to avoid that lecture in the future.
I shudder to think about the ridiculously unfair distribution of labor between me and anyone who tries to work with me on projects during an episode.
After I screwed something up pretty badly, I came clean. It made things a bit easier for everyone involved.
These days I try to be upfront with people so they know what’s going on and we can all be on the same page, but not everyone is there yet. So, when you see someone in your life start to go down the “screw up” slope, instead of painting them with the failure brush, check in with them and ask how they’re doing. They may be drowning and in need of a lifeline.
Just the act of letting them know that you see and hear them and support them where they are is huge for someone who has been doing the normal dance as fast as they can and in the process dropping all the balls all over the place.
5. Be aware of how much you ask of others
Notice how much you ask of others and how you ask for it. This one is tricky because we should be able to lean on each other and ask for support, and as someone who came from an “avoid being a burden at all costs” background, I know how problematic it can be when you try desperately to not ask for anything ever.
That said, it never ceases to amaze me that I will be openly in a depressive episode and people will maintain a steady stream of requests and demands, each one ratcheting up the stress and making me want to shut down my email account and run away forever.
Mental illness lies to us and makes us see and hear things differently than they actually are. When someone is coping with mental illness, they aren’t only hearing what you are actually saying but, very likely, a lot of other stuff like:
- You aren’t doing enough.
- I’m angry with you.
- My needs are more important than yours.
There’s no way you can know what’s going on in someone’s head, but also, you never know what’s going on in someone’s head, you know?
We tend to assume the default setting for humans is “doing awesome and ready for anything we throw at them!” and I’m not sure I think that’s a fair assumption to make about anyone ever. Generally, I’m opposed to pelting people (any people) with requests anyway, but when put in the context of “you never know what someone is coping with” this seems especially relevant.
Consider the digest approach, and communicate everything in one message. Suddenly, a heavy pile of requests becomes one friendly message with a clear purpose rather than a non-stop barrage of emails that someone has to wade through to figure out all the (seemingly many) things you want. Or, do like my best friend does and check-in to ask if people have the spoons for what you want/need from them right then or if it should wait.
Finally, when you know someone is struggling and you want something from them that isn’t urgent or work-related I suggest — and I know this may be controversial — backing off. For example, any request that opens with, “Remember a while back you said…” is probably best saved for another time.
6. Be okay with people being not okay
We don’t often leave a lot of space for people to experience unpleasant feelings. We encourage positivity, fun, and smiles. We label sadness, anger, shame, and their friends as TMI, downers, or something folks “probably don’t want to talk about, right?” We don’t leave space for being “not okay” to just be normal.
These days, the only acceptable answers to “How are you?” are synonyms for good. Even saying “fine” will get you hit with a barrage of questions about why you aren’t more chipper. Rather than offering the support you need, people ask why you insist on bringing down the room.
Give friends the room to express when they aren’t okay, and make it safe for them to ask for what they need. Remember that they may not need anything at that particular moment. They may just stay not okay for a bit. It needn’t be a race to fix the “problem.”
I always say that I’ve been through two bouts of crippling injury: one where I lived alone and one where I lived with a partner and, to the surprise of many, the one where I lived with a partner was way harder, because I had to deal with how he wanted me to feel/act/be. Living alone I got to be where I was when I was there.
Consequently, I actually felt pretty okay mentally while I was injured alone, but sank into a depression so bad I needed my mother to come to stay with me when I was injured with a partner. And it all came down to it being okay with not being okay.
Let people be where they are. If they want to use humor to cope with their situation, let them! Don’t respond to their jokes with a sympathetic head tilt.
As long as they are safe, understand that they may not be “good,” “okay,” or even “fine,” but they are where they are and they get to be there. Avoid the barrage of questions like, “Are you okay?” and “How are you?” These can make people want to peel their skin off in frustration.
If you are looking for a way to help, try asking, “How can I support you?” This one question creates room for options rather than backing your friend into an “I don’t know… pressure, pressure, pressure!” corner. They might not have an answer but they know you are there, which is usually what people want to express with those other questions even though it often presents the exact opposite perception.
If you or somebody that you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, there is a way to get help. Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or text “HELLO” to 741741 to be connected with the Crisis Text Line.
JoEllen Notte is a writer, speaker, researcher, and author. She has been featured in The Daily Dot, AlterNet, Powell’s Books Blog, and more.
This article was originally published at The RedHead Bedhead. Reprinted with permission from the author.