1) Don’t Speak
This seems to fly in the face of perceived wisdom. We are supposed to talk to someone when they are unwell ― ask if they’re okay, if they want to speak about anything, if something is worrying them, if they have eaten, if they want a drink, if they want to go for a short walk around the block to get a breath of fresh air, if they want to lie down. Taking is important and crucial to forming connections with people who are at breaking point, but so is silence. When I have been severely depressed, having someone sit next to me without saying a word has been such a comfort. It doesn’t feel intrusive, there are no expectations for me to speak or fill in the gaps, and I can just sit and feel the presence of another and not feel so alone.
2) Don’t Expect Us to Help You Understand
It often falls to the one who is unwell to explain what is wrong. Although there are lots of books and online resources exploring different ‘mental illnesses’ (I’m not so keen on the duality between mind/body peddled in the West), people still want the person suffering to explain things to them. This may be fine once the person has recovered (sometimes), but it’s not helpful during the period they are ill. Ultimately, regardless of the illness, a person isn’t necessarily going to want to go into detail with every individual who asks. Do your own research. Improve your own understanding.
3) Don’t Take Anything Personally
When people become unwell, the only thing that matters is somehow getting through it or not as is sometimes the case. You may think your party for your 50th will be fabulous or the trip to the cinema you’ve arranged with drinks after and possibly a meal sounds perfect or that beer in a pub on a Saturday night with the lads is not to be missed, but for someone in crisis, they don’t care. They are fighting to get through another drawn out minute, another achingly, painful second. Fighting to not give in or not to finally give up. Fighting to hang onto the smallest, stray thread of something representing wellness and peace of mind.
4) Don’t Try To Fix Us
Having a mental illness doesn’t mean we are broken or some sort of weak, ineffectual creature that needs fixing. To be fair, we are all a little broken in this world and those thinking they aren’t are some of the most broken of all. Living with mental illness takes strength, courage and tenacity. We have to be focused, moving with the punches as it were, and open and self-aware. It takes flexibility and creativity and hardy self-reliance. It takes the commitment to keep showing up. Nothing here sounds weak or in need of superglue to me.
5) Don’t Try and Brush It Away
I know it’s hard. No one wants to see a loved one or a friend suffer. Some of us turn away from pain, we want it to stop because we don’t know how to sit with it. We hope if we don’t pay attention, the pain will ignore us, too or we put a band aid over it with cup of tea and a ginger biscuit. Whilst trying to brush it away is understandable because it makes you feel uncomfortable it isn’t helpful. it meets your needs, not ours. Stay with us. We know what it’s like to sit with pain, sometimes it’s all we do.
6) Don’t Treat Us Like Children
There seems to be something about the vulnerability and fragility of mental illness that can lead some people to treat us like kids. I have been treated like it myself, almost as if along with being ill, I have had an adjustment in intellect. Now I am not saying that sometimes we don’t get confused or fail to understand basic things or have a hard time looking after ourselves, but that doesn’t mean condescension needs to run rife or our competence in life needs to be based on a time when we were exceptionally vulnerable and unwell.
7) Don’t Tell Us How We Feel
Often, and especially if you are depressed, you will act like a magnet to those who think they know why you look so downcast. If I had a pound for every free bit of psych 101 and lame therapy people have handed out to me, my life, my house and maybe even my bath would be paved with gold. Maybe they are trying to be helpful, maybe it’s ego, either way, if we tell you, listen, if we don’t, please don’t guess.
8) Don’t Tell Us To Pull Ourselves Together
Believe me, if we could pull ourselves together, we would. If there was some sort of switch or pull cord that could right all the wrongs we were feeling and plaster a great big grin on our faces, we would be on it in a flash. It’s not how it works. Either have patience or politely bog off.
9) Don’t Tell Us To Get Some Pills
The idea that psychiatrists have a collection of little shiny pills they can hand out and turn you into a shiny happy person in a day or two (sorry, REM) is a myth. There is no such thing. Medication can help, but it takes time and this reductive idea that it’s a magical cure for everything does more harm than good.
10) Be You!
Laugh, joke, be yourself. We can be so trapped inside our brains so sharing space with another can make us forget ourselves for a brief moment. It might sound trivial to say a moment but life is weaved from moments and in certain situations a moment can feel like a lifetime especially when trapped inside your own head. Let us be ourselves too, whatever that currently looks like. We live in a society that is afraid of anything outside of the norm, so be the person that reaches out a hand and offers a ray of hope. You might need it yourself one day but we need it today.
And that’s about it. What do you find helpful and unhelpful? Let me know in the comments below.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.