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To Anyone Who Has Asked How to Help When I'm Struggling

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Dear Faithful Friend,

Friends can be an invaluable source of support for anyone struggling with mental illness. Thank you for noticing when things aren’t quite right and caring enough to ask, “What can I do to help?” I know sometimes you can feel a little helpless, as though there’s nothing you can do to make things better. Well, firstly, let me reassure you of this: you are already being helpful just by listening.

When you ask that question, I often don’t know how to respond. It’s not because I don’t want your help, but because I don’t know what will help.

And sometimes I’m scared to confront the question, “What if no one can help me?” But recently I’ve had clarity over what it is that makes all the difference when I’m having a low day or my mind is racing with disordered and dysfunctional thoughts. Not everyone will want or need the same kind of support I describe below, but for me personally, and perhaps for you or your friend, this is the answer you’ve been waiting for when you asked, “What can I do to help?”

1) Ask

Find out where I’m at. Find out what’s going on in my head. Ask me what thoughts are filling my mind. They may be spilling over into my behavior; they may be quiet and unassuming. I may or may not recognize them as negative or dysfunctional.

For example – “How are your heart and your head? What is your mind dwelling on at the moment?”

2) Deconstruct

Rationalise my thoughts. Question the voices. Point out the things that don’t make sense. Show me which thoughts are lies and give me objective evidence wherever possible. Help me see the bigger picture.

For example – “Where has this thought/belief come from? How trustworthy is your source?”

3) Reconstruct

Tell me truths. Speak out verbal antidotes to my disordered beliefs. Give me alternative voices to listen to. Wherever possible, show me tangible evidence that these things are true so that the disorder cannot refute them.

For example – “How do you think someone else might see you/this situation? You are not [insert negative belief], you are [insert positive truth], for example [insert concrete example].”

4) Persevere

I probably won’t believe you. I might even argue back. I might be able to logically understand that some thoughts are dysfunctional and destructive but they still feel as real as ever inside. Don’t disregard my disordered beliefs – some are not completely irrational and they certainly do not feel irrational. I need as many voices of reason as possible.

For example – “It must be really hard for you to think of yourself in that way. I am still certain that this belief of yours is a lie because [more concrete examples], but even if it were true, what would happen if you chose to ignore it?”

Thank you for being wonderful. If ever you are struggling, let me know what I can do to help.

Yours,

Grateful Friend

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I Couldn't Find a Self-Help Workbook That Spoke to Me – so I Created My Own

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Throughout my illness and recovery, I have always been drawn to self-help books. Even when I was in treatment, I was often working through a self-help workbook in between sessions. It was my way really committing myself to recovery — I was doing the work on my own as well as with my therapist.

I remember going to the bookstore and grabbing all the books I was interested in from the self-help and psychology sections and sitting on the ground going through them. Despite the many workbooks I’ve used, I didn’t find any that really clicked with what I was searching for.

As I got further in my recovery, I strayed from the heavy, clinical workbooks to the genre of guided and interactive journals. These were often more creative, based in self-expression and fun to work through. However, I realized that while I loved the voice and approach of these journals, I missed having the clinical and researched aspect. I wanted the journal to be based in something that would help me, not just something that was purely fun or aesthetic.

Finally I decided that since there wasn’t one that filled this gap between clinical and creative, I would make one myself. I proposed “What Now? A Creative Workbook Journal Thing” as my degree project and applied (and was accepted) to be an Active Minds Emerging Scholar to make it a reality.

“What Now?” is a workbook/journal featuring creative prompts to help users process and express emotions in a visual, cheeky way. It’s organized into sections by core emotion. The prompts in the journal draw influence from several existing therapeutic approaches and theories, but mainly from art therapy and the skills and philosophy of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is a treatment model that centers around mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal effectiveness. At its core, DBT is rooted in validation and in the synthesis of acceptance and change, and that theme runs throughout the journal.

While the book isn’t a substitute for treatment, it can be an aid in managing the difficult emotions that may come with a mental health condition. The goal of this journal is to help people — especially young adults — improve emotional regulation, build resilience and increase (and destigmatize) help-seeking.

I hope this book will provide an alternative way of journaling and a more creative approach to a workbook. I want people to be able to work through what life throws at them in a beneficial way, and I believe this will be an invaluable tool for managing mental health.

Learn more about “What Now?” and get your copy by backing it on Kickstarter

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Image via Alyse Ruriani

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In Response to Anyone Who Thinks Someone With a Mental Illness Can be 'Beyond Help'

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Mental health community shares messages to anyone who needs a reminder they aren’t “beyond help.”

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10 Tips for Self-Care on Valentine's Day

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Valentine’s Day is a day people usually love or hate. Sometimes it is called “singles appreciation day (SAD).” It is the holiday with the second most cards given (after Christmas). Sometimes people can feel sad on this day if they are single.

Now, I have been in both a relationship and single on Valentines Day and to be honest, it didn’t feel any different. There seems to be a belief that Valentine’s Day is strictly for couples, but it most definitely is not. Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love. When I think love, I don’t just think a romantic relationship. I think of pets, friends and family and myself!

Why not celebrate Valentine’s Day by taking care of your mental health? I have a few self-care activities that have helped me in the past that I would like to share. Everyone is different and is going through different experiences, so what works for someone might not work for you, and that is OK!

Here goes:

1. Apply a face mask and listen to some music that puts you in a good mood. You can even make it a home day spa, solo or with others.

2. Go to a place that sells flowers and take a big whiff. You can buy them if you like, but it’s not necessary to get the benefit. I personally recommend Trader Joe’s, they always have good smelling flowers!

3. Practice mindfulness. What I like to do is sit on my front porch, close my eyes and really listen. I like to stop one sense from working so the others are stronger. I plug my nose and listen, then close my eyes and smell, then plug my ears and watch. This is one of my favorite things to do.

4. Lay out in the sun and feel the warmth on your skin.

5. Have a dance party, by yourself or with others.

6. At night, look at the stars and moon. This not only calms me down, but gives me perspective.

7. Sing without shame. Extra props if you use a hairbrush as a microphone.

8. Watch a movie you have been wanting to see, either at home or in a theater.

9. Look for activities in your neighborhood and get out of the house.

10. Go for a bike ride.

But most importantly, remember you are the most important. On an airplane, they always say to put your oxygen mask on before helping others. If you don’t, you will be of no help to anyone, especially yourself.

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Loving Someone With a Mental Illness

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Valentine’s Day is a day to express love and affection towards family, friends and loved ones. It’s an emotional day for most, but it can be a frustrating day for others.

I remember the first Valentine’s Day with my boyfriend. It was a new relationship, getting to know each other, but for us Valentine’s Day was just like any other day; for me it was a day to show affection but not for him.

You see, my boyfriend lives with mental illness and when he first moved in two months prior I discovered he was not on any medication and couldn’t tell me how he felt.  I didn’t completely understand then, but I do now.

He lives with clinical depression and with that comes with sleeping all day, not wanting to do anything or go anywhere, emotions being put on hold, no laughter. He also lives with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), so on top of the depression is the anxiety. That includes a fear of going outside, talking to anyone, not wanting to text, call or email anyone. He sometimes would ask me questions like, “Do you love me?” “Why do you love me?” “Why don’t you find someone else, someone with a stable mind?” He couldn’t be touched when he was upset, anxious or panicky. The best thing I could do was just talk to him and provide reassurance.

What helped me the most is reading all I could on mental illness but information based on other people’s experiences. I found it helped me better understand him and his needs.

I’m not afraid to say it was a rough year, but it was worth it. We made it through, he’s been on medication and going to therapy for two years now, and we couldn’t be happier.

If you have a loved one who lives with mental illness, I have some advice for you:

1. Please be patient. I know it may be frustrating and upsetting, but it will be worth it

2. Your loved one may need reassurance. Don’t be afraid to tell them you love them even though they may not be able to express the same

3. Be sure to take time for yourself. What you’re experiencing may drain you mentally; take care of yourself. Overall, just remember you’re with your loved one because you do love them, you’ve seen them for the real them and not the mental
illness. Also remember they do love you.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s boyfriend.

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Thinkstock photo by Oleg Breslavtsev

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Valentine's Day Ideas for People With Mental Illness

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I have to start by saying I have the best partner and husband in the world. Sorry everyone, but I don’t plan on letting him go anywhere. What I can do is share some of the ways he has picked me up during my worst times with depression and anxiety. I remember all the little ways he’s made my life easier. For those who don’t know how to help their partner, maybe this can assist you in making their lives a little brighter on Valentine’s Day. Just because we may need extra care doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate it! If you don’t have a partner on the 14th, don’t let that stop you from spoiling yourself! We need all the spoiling we can get!

Sleepy, comfy ideas:

  • New blanket (or even a weighted blanket or
    snuggle)
  • Specialty pillow (such as u-shaped pillows or
    body pillows)
  • Eye mask
  • Comfy sleep wear

Having a mental illness usually means your mind and body is fighting a battle – and that can mean your body is constantly sore, tired and stressed. I know mine is. This is where the above list helps. New research shows weighted blankets can calm anxiety and give support to those with excess stress. I live in a warm climate so a weighted blanket isn’t an option. However I still have to have a doona or Snuggie blanket whenever I’m on the sofa or the bed. A nice idea for the whimsical partner would be a mermaid tail blanket.
These type of blankets can help release “happy hormones” and start the process of relaxation in tight muscles. This also applies for specialty pillows. The stress caused by mental illness shows greatly in my neck muscles. They are always sore and tense. I can’t be comfortable without my u-shaped pillow, and I’ve heard great things about body pillows. I recently got an eye mask, and what a difference it makes. Insomnia is a common symptom so limiting light is huge for me when trying to go to sleep. Finally, comfy sleep wear is an awesome gift. After my depression symptoms appeared, my outfits mostly consist of PJs and comfy sleep wear. I still struggle to get out of bed some days. Wearing something comfy, cute and soft makes the day in bed feel a little bit better. Also, because I do spend a lot of time sleeping or overcoming fatigue due to the
depression, there is always a need for clean sleep wear.

Technology ideas:

  • His/her favorite book/movie/TV series
  • Netflix account or another streaming account
  • Audio books (available from audible.com)

When my depression and anxiety were at their worst, I didn’t leave my apartment for weeks. I couldn’t do anything but sleep and sob. My husband just stayed by my side and made sure there was a lot of blankets, pillows and tissues. (Hint: Grab the tissues with moisturizer added. The cheaper ones will start hurting your partner’s face.) I didn’t notice when he grabbed his laptop and started watching his TV shows next to me while I cried and slept. Then I started watching with him. He made sure it was something mindless and not too dramatic, gory or adventurous. A good list I found this week was from The Bright Side website. I don’t remember what we watched exactly – but it was good to just keep my mind on that and not think of anything. I realize now he was slowly drawing me back into the “real world” with familiar memories from movies and shows I’d seen and liked. What he did that made this memorable enough to mention was make sure I was always in his arms and presence. Even now, we still have a TV/ movie/Netflix day. It is really just an excuse to be held and keep everything else away for a little while (and wear PJs again all day). I added audio books into this list as this had lasting habits for me. If I can’t sleep I put on an audio book or documentary and the voice talking helps me fall asleep.

Healthy ideas:

  • A cleaner visit
  • Healthy food
  • Chocolate scents
  • Scented candles and essential oils

Being healthy when you have a mental illness can be so hard. Having a clean body and environment makes a big difference when you are trying to get your brain on track. I still struggle doing chores – the fatigue and pain from sore muscles really makes it hard. Having a cleaner come – even if it’s just a once-off – takes some the pressure of being on top of the endless dirt and dust easier. I would suggest telling your partner before booking so they can prepare leaving the house. I have lots of guilt about having a cleaner come, but afterwards I feel so much better.

Healthy eating is also hard. I’m working on trying to find flavor in natural ingredients again. I found a trick to make it easier – which is to ask my husband to help. Research has found that food prepared by someone else may taste better. I’m a huge believer in it as all the food my husband makes tastes really good. He also started organizing the groceries to be delivered at home so fresh greens in the fridge means they are closer to being in my stomach! There are even fruit baskets, which seems an awesome present for those who love fruit. I can’t talk about food and Valentine’s Day without mentioning chocolate. But can I mention a new gift you might not have thought of – chocolate candles? (There are also helps of other chocolate smelling niceties like soap, pens, room spray and calculators.)T hey can help release all the happiness of chocolate without
any calories. Scented candles have other health benefits that include helping with relaxation and headaches. Having my home smell nice makes me feel that my home is nice – taking away a lot of stress for me. The same effect can be made with essential oils if candles are not an option.

Wellbeing ideas:

  • Subscription to an online support website
  • Visit from a loved one
  • Social network-free days
  • A letter written from you

My last little suggestions are one that have made a big difference to my wellbeing. The first is the amount of online support nowadays. I struggle sometimes meeting with a trainer or therapist, so having an option of having them online is genius. Websites such as The Mighty, Happify.com, the BetterHelp app  and other mental illness support apps and websites are great for getting that little bit of help when you need someone, something, anything in the middle of the day or night. Nothing can replace a councilor or therapist, but having support electronically can really help. I’ll also mention Nerd Fitness, as there are also heaps of online fitness support tackling the need to address mental health before or alongside physical health.

When I was at my lowest, my husband organized a trip so I could see my parents and immediate family. That was wonderful as we live a few states away. I got to be with those I loved who were giving me reasons to fight the voices in my head. Really meant a lot as it showed me I still had people who would do anything for me.

Every now and again my husband will endorse social network-free days. I love my laptop and am always on a site “talking” to people. More and more research points out that social networks can make us more isolated. So when I’m stressed out, we call social network-free days. We turn off the work emails and Facebook and chats and phones and just enjoy the company we have in our house. We let our closest friends and family know we are “unavailable” for 24 hours. You’d expect the whole world to stop if I was “unplugged,” right? Haven’t had anything bad happen. Turns out the talking I was doing online was with the wrong people. I needed to be with the people I was physically with in the now.

My last suggestion: write your partner a letter. I was having panic attacks every morning before I started work for a while. I wouldn’t calm down unless I heard him over the phone. This wasn’t feasible as he has meetings and work tasks to do as well. He wrote me a letter outlining breathing techniques and good memories together to ground me. He also wrote about my good qualities and how I was strong enough to get through today because I had overcome so much already. I keep it on my person at all times, and
it is helpful no matter what kind of day I’m having.

My husband is my best friend and my biggest supporter. He does a couple of these ideas on special days (like Valentine’s Day, birthdays, holidays, taco day, etc.) to make my illness bearable. I hope this was helpful to making a difference in you and your partner’s lives. Good luck and Happy Valentine’s Day!

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