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10 Ways to Really Help Someone Living With a Mental Illness

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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.

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Originally published: May 19, 2016
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