3 Ways to Help Those with Mental Illnesses
I was taught at a young age that having a “label” was one of the most shameful things a person can have. I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 10, and the first thing I heard when I got home was,”don't tell anyone. You don't want anyone to know something is wrong with you.” I was put on Ritalin, and even though for the first time in my life, my brain and my body didn't feel totally out of control, for the next 15 years that little white pill carried more shame than anything else.
Thankfully years later, I was lucky enough to find a group of women online who talked so openly about their labels that I finally felt comfortable talking about mine. They helped me realize the stigma I felt my ADHD and anxiety disorder carried was complete bullshit. Taking medication, going to a therapist, or living with and talking about these issues is brave, healthy, kind, loving, and not even a little bit shameful.
So because May is Mental Health Awareness month, let's continue to dismantle that stigma and talk about some (hopefully) helpful things you can do for the people in your life with mental illnesses, even if you have no idea what having anxiety, depression, PTSD, Bipolar Disorder, or any other mental illness is like.
1. LISTEN TO SUPPORT, NOT TO RESPOND OR FIX IT.
Before I found my safe people to talk to when I'm anxious, I got a lot of "calm down, it's nothing. You worry too much!" or "have you prayed about it?” Or, they would throw a hundred things at me to do to try and make it better when all they really did was overwhelm me and make me feel worse. You don't have to know what to say to be helpful, most of the time people in the middle of a spiral just need to say the words to get them out of our heads and find some breathing room. Instead of trying to fix everything or placate your loved one, simply say, "gosh. That sounds really hard, I'm so sorry you feel that way" or "thank you for trusting me with this, I know this is really difficult for you. I'm here to help if you need anything." We want to feel heard, not placated or fixed.
2. EVERYONE EXPERIENCES MENTAL ILLNESS DIFFERENTLY.
If your uncle has depression, chances are he's going to handle it differently than your best friend. And to add to the mystery, what worked to support someone last time might not work this time. Ask THEM what's going on and how you can best help. Assuming you know what to do because you've been around depression before reduces your loved one to an illness and doesn't allow for them to exist within it. Ask your questions kindly, you could start with, “I don't know what you're feeling, but I want to support you. Is there anything I can do?” Or “I want to have a better idea of what's happening in your brain and body when you feel like this so I can support you. What are things that you try when this happens?” Sometimes knowing someone cares enough to ask is enough to help us stand back up.
3. WE KNOW IT DOESN'T MAKE SENSE.
When I'm anxious, my brain turns into my own personally tailored hellscape. It convinces me I have nothing to offer and am worthless to my core. It tells me the people who love me are actually really annoyed with me and just feel bad for me so they stay out of guilt. It tells me I have never been and will never be enough. We could be out in the sunshine at the flea market, lattes in hand, having the best time connecting and this cloud could randomly descend leaving me "moody" and "weird" for 30 minutes before I can shake it off and feel like a human again. I don't get it either. What works for me in those moments are taking a little space and then being able to share the thoughts in my head with someone safe who is willing to listen and give me that space to get it out and process or bring truth to things if I get stuck. Sometimes I just need to bail out and go home to The Office and a nap. It's weird, we know. We don't like it either. All we ask is that you're in it with us.
This stuff isn't even a little bit easy. It's not something we can easily control or choose, our actual brains aren't working correctly. We intimately know how frustrating it is, and how sometimes you want to throw up your hands and say, "OMG just get out of bed! It's not that bad, get a grip!" because we have berated ourselves with the same request a thousand times. We need warm hugs and quiet space; we need listening ears and truth-filled love. We don't need you to fix it... you cannot fix this. We just want to be able to show up as we are and be accepted by you, however we may be.