10 Ways to Really Help Someone Living With a Mental Illness


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 reported 9.6 million adults in the U.S. have a serious mental illness, one that interferes with their daily lives, requiring medication and therapy in order to overcome its effects.

As someone who is part of the statistics (hello, my name is Jenni, I have a bipolar 1 diagnosis), I have some insights 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:

1. Be there.

Please don’t disappear. Please. Your loved one 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 and keep us from feeling alienated and alone.

2. Take some pressure off.

On the other hand, don’t expect your loved one 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 can feel like a 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.

OK, 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 loved one 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 loved one 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 loved one 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.

Platitudes, for those who are not sure, are saying and advice that have been said and given so frequently 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 loved one who feels like a train wreck. Don’t say “I was depressed once too….” to a loved one with clinical depression. Don’t say “oh yeah, my hormones wreak havoc on me once a month too…” to a loved one who is bipolar. Just…don’t.

6. Seek to understand.

The brain is a 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 loved one’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 loved one is going through. It will help you deal with the emotional crises particular to your loved one’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 loved one 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 loved one take it for his/her OCD. If you think something might help, it’s OK to suggest it, but don’t be hurt if your loved one decides to discuss it with his/her doctor before buying a case of whatever it is.

8. Expect turbulence.

If you are truly available to your loved one, 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 loved one who is feeling completely overwhelmed by life.

10. Pray and keep us in your thoughts.

However you can, however you do, just do it. And keep on doing it. Have faith the light will dawn, slowly but surely, in the end.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

TOPICS
, Contributor list
JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Related to Mental Health

How to Choose the Right Therapist

This piece was originally written by Princess Gabbara, a Black Doctor contributor. Life is tough and at some point in your life, you may find yourself in a place where you need some guidance, some healing and perhaps a little therapy to help you get through it. For many folks, the idea of pouring their heart [...]
Psychiatrist with Patient

A Life Coach's 3 Words Oversimplified My Mental Health Story

I recently had a Skype conversation with a life coach who asked to hear the details about my mental health story to better understand why I wasn’t responding to the methods she believed worked so well. Every time I tried to explain what was so painful about my experience, she cut me off with three little words. “I [...]

12 Fantasy Book Quotes That Have Helped Us Cope With Mental Illness

After the headmaster of a private school in England wrote a blog claiming fantasy books put children at risk for developing mental illnesses, many have spoken out in disagreement, sharing how fantasy books helped them cope with mental health issues. Reading is an escape — a healthy one at that, and some of the “dark themes” [...]
Sketch of blank board with working little people.

The Bare Necessities of Improving Workplace Mental Health

Not addressing mental health in the workplace is bad. The effects are tragic on the employees and the employer. It results in decreased productivity and effectiveness. It’s unethical, inhumane and in some cases, illegal, and could result in legal action ultimately detrimental to the employer. Plus, employers end up losing brilliant talent, talent unfortunate to lose, [...]