Some of you have not yet had a personal experience with mental illness. Others of you may never have that experience. However, statistics say that one in five U.S. adults will face a diagnosable mental health crisis in any given year, so all of you are nearly guaranteed to at least know someone, if not many people at some point in your lives who struggle with the frantic upheaval of anxiety, with the weighted pressure of depression, or with some other wholly unexplainable crisis of the mind. Those people – your future (and current) friends and partners, your children, your business associates, your neighbors – will benefit from your having some knowledge about what to do and say, and some idea of how best to help.
Fortunately, being a supportive friend or partner to a person living with a mental illness doesn’t have to be complicated and doesn’t require rigorous training. Here are a few simple ways to be present for someone who finds themselves struggling:
Validate what they share with you. When your loved one shares painful emotions and experiences with you, avoid the urge to psychoanalyze, attempt to cheer up, or to downplay what they are saying. These responses will be perceived as diminishing and potentially judgmental. Instead, offer a listening ear and a sincere “that sounds hard” or similar. We want to be heard and accepted in the state we find ourselves in, not fixed. Living with a mental illness can be scary and feeling like we have someone to talk to can help us to feel less alone and less afraid.
Ask how you can help. Every mental illness is unique. Each person with depression will experience it a little bit differently, and no two cases of OCD are the same. It’s important to ask the person in front of you how you can help them and not assume you already know. Offering to help shows you care and if your friend doesn’t have a ready answer, they might begin to think about what it is they need to feel better.
Be understanding of their limitations. A mental illness is an illness with real symptoms that can impact all areas of a person’s life. The nature of my particular illness means there are times when I need to cancel plans I’ve made at the last minute because my anxiety is not under control. Other times I might need to rest for an entire day, perhaps two, because of depressive fatigue. There are physical, emotional, and mental components to these limitations that are outside of my control.
The person you are looking to support will be experiencing something similar, perhaps on a more intense level as they come to know their diagnosis and get any therapies they choose adjusted.
If your friend turns down your invitations, has to cancel plans, or wants to go to a quieter place for drinks this time, be understanding. Whatever you do, don’t stop inviting them to come, even if they keep saying no. Let them know you value their company.
Don’t gossip. I cannot stress this enough. For many people it is hard to talk about issues of mental health in a culture which readily passes judgement on that which we feel is abnormal. If you have been trusted, do not betray this confidence by making your loved one the next “did you hear” topic of conversation.
If, however, you are afraid that the person you are supporting is in danger of hurting themselves or someone else, let them know that you are going to tell someone you are worried for their safety – a parent, a therapist, an officer, whomever you feel is appropriate – and then do so.
Change the subject. Finally, move on to something else, even temporarily. It’s important to listen, to validate, to offer support, but it can be just as important to offer some fun and necessary distraction.
It’s okay to talk about what’s going on in your life, to talk about things you’re both interested in, or to just head out and take a walk together.
Before I set you all loose in the world as willing and ready supporters, there’s one final thing you need to know: boundaries. While it’s wonderful to support those close to us as they work through the challenges mental illnesses can present, it’s important to remember to keep our boundaries in place. You do not need to be available 24/7.
You do not need to feel guilty if things are going well for you and if you are happy, and you should not feel like you are required to stay in a relationship that is becoming unhealthy or no longer working for you. Remember that there are professionals trained in helping people successfully live with mental illnesses and that you (at least today) are not one of them.
Mental illnesses are all around us, impacting people we care about every day. Understanding how to be a support in time of need can help make challenging times easier for people living with a mental health diagnosis. It isn’t difficult, but it’s definitely worth it.