How to Help Someone Get Help for Their Mental Illness
Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
Getting help is hard.
First, there are the phone calls. You typically have to make them yourself due to privacy laws. So you call around and try to find a clinician who doesn’t already have a full roster. Then you wait at least a week, sometimes a month or more. Then you get to try on your therapist, walk around in an initial conversation and see if they’re a good fit. If not, it’s back to calling around again.
This isn’t even to mention if you try to get a psychiatrist. Sometimes you jump through all the hoops to get a therapist just so you can get a referral so you can see the psychiatrist, whom you hope is a good fit because you don’t want to have to wait months more for another. Then the experimentation with the drugs start. Try this one and come back in a week. How do you feel? OK, now let’s up the dosage. Come back in a week. How do you feel? OK, this one isn’t working for you or maybe the side effects are too much so let’s try that one. Come back in a week. How do you feel now? OK, let’s add this one and see how you do in a week. Repeat and repeat and repeat, on and on and on.
All of this is just to try and get stable, to beat back your depression, manage your anxiety, control the psychosis. It’s a lot of effort to get mental health help. It’s emotionally draining. It’s dealing with getting on and off medications and all their side effects, all of which can wear on your body. This is work you have to do to get the help you need.
Now, imagine doing all this work or even starting this exhausting process when you’re in crisis — when the depression is eating you alive and whispering suicide in your ear. When panic attacks leave you debilitated and crumpled up on the floor, desperate to catch your breath. When you think your grip on reality is slipping. It’s in a crisis we need help the most, yet crisis is the point that it is hardest for us to put in all the effort to find a psychologist, psychiatrist, someone, anyone who can help us.
It’s not easy to survive a mental health crisis. The people we lose to suicide are proof of that. I don’t blame them though. The struggle is real, the fight is hard. Sometimes we lose to the illness. Sometimes we don’t get help in time. Sometimes we can’t even begin to reach out for help. I refuse to believe suicide is some unforgivable sin. It is an enemy, a stalker, a killer. It isolates us, cuts us off from our communities, our support, our loved ones. Then it kills us. Suicide is the terminal result of an illness. It’s not a selfish or cowardly action. It’s the result of a broken brain. It sometimes is the only option we can see to end the tremendous amount of pain we are in. Suicide is the dangerous end of a crisis if we don’t find the help we need.
Sometimes it feels like we are asking people with mental illness to walk miles to the hospital on a pair of broken legs. I know in my own times of crisis, reaching out has been the absolute hardest thing in the world, the last thing I feel like I can do. But it is what I needed the most. So we do reach out in any flailing way we can. We are desperately seeking immediate help and when the mental health system fails to provide us with that (no matter how much it tries to), we begin to look elsewhere.
We turn to self-medication behaviors — things like drugs, alcohol, self-harm. Anything to ease the pain we feel. Other times we go to the ER and get some triage for our mental state and emotions. We reach out to various crisis lines, hoping to find some relief, some connection, some solution to this plight. Sometimes, we reach out to churches, pastors and priests to give us some blessing, some wisdom, some healing for our soul. We even reach out to family and friends, hoping not to be a burden but to find some sort of solace, help, support in our times of need.
The point is, we are looking for help in any and all places.
So, let me pose a question to you. Knowing that one in four people will struggle with at least one mental health crisis in their lifetime, do you know how to help someone when you see them looking for help? Do you know how to be the support they need, how to get them to the professionals that can help, how to keep them alive while they go through pain and torment? Do you know how to be the community people you know may desperately need?
Let me tell you what you can do for us, how you can help, how you can be our lifeline in crisis.
Love us enough to be there, physically, even when it’s ugly and uncomfortable. Love us enough to take us to the ER in emergencies. Love us enough to find the numbers to psychologists and psychiatrists for us. Love us enough to make us a meal we may not eat. Love us enough to not leave us alone when we might push you away. Love us like you would want to be loved if your life was on the line.
You may not save us, you may not do it perfectly, you may need others to help you, but please don’t leave us. Love us because we need it.
You may not be the help we need, but you can be a bridge to the start of a solution. Get us through this night of hurt. See us through till sunrise. Be there when we feel like no one is. We need you to be the answer to our prayers in these moments when the darkness is swallowing us whole. We don’t need you to be an expert or to have the silver bullet to solve our problems. We just need you to love us. Help us hold onto life when we are slipping.
One practical thing you can do is get suicide prevention training. The QPR Institute is a great facilitator of this. With the right training, you can be such a lifeline and bridge to help us get the help we need.
Love and preparedness are powerful tools you can wield to help us fight the best of mental illness. We need a community to bolster us up when the illness is trying to isolate and kill us. You are our community; you are love incarnate to us. You are hope with skin on when you can step in and be present with us in our crisis. So please, love us hard even when it is hard. Be the help that can get us to the help we need long term. You don’t have to do this forever, just long enough for us to get into some other safe hands. And safe hands are what we need. Our own hands are jagged and weak and we can’t hold on by ourselves. Don’t let us let go.
Be the bridge.
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.
Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you struggle with self-harm or suicidal thoughts and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.
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