In my experience with dealing with mental illness, I have found some things people have done or said to me either helpful or extremely not helpful. The purpose of this post is to help those who have depressed family or friends to be more informed about what to do and not to do.
1. Please do take it seriously when we disclose to you our mental illness.
It takes a lot of courage and boldness to share our internal struggles with the outside world. A lot of hurt, addiction and the stigma that surrounds mental illness can prevent us from sharing. We get affected by how you react, how you might think and the way you may behave towards us after we share with you. No, it’s not just going to go away; it is there for life. Sure, we can manage it with drugs, therapy and lifestyle changes, but it is a part of us and it has shaped us to be who we are today. So, please don’t belittle our conditions; it’s not like we chose to be born with them… or for them to be part of us.
2. Don’t compare my struggles to your own life. Every story and person is different.
This is more for the people who don’t have the mental condition you have and they try to dismiss your anxieties as something that will pass. They even might say: “I had it worse than you in my own day.” Often this is said by a well-meaning older person to cheer a younger person up, but it does not help. Your circumstances and mine are different; we are two different people and just because you can’t see my illness doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
From my own personal experience, being brought up in an Asian Christian family meant that mental illness is the taboo topic no one talks about. It made me believe I was flawed and I had to keep my struggles to myself. I have nothing against Christianity, but I do believe people need to acknowledge that mental illness is real as high blood pressure and may need treatment. Back when I was going through a really hard time due at an old workplace, I finally saw a GP about my insomnia and he diagnosed me with anxiety and depression. He said I should see a psychologist and I should start medication. I didn’t really want to start medication, so I said I would think about it. I talked to my then-church leader about it and she advised me not to take medications, but to pray to God to heal me instead. So, I continued my suffering… until it got so bad and the suicidal thoughts were real. I talked to a pastor of the church about my struggles and she was like, “Start the medication. You are in such a bad place even faith can’t help you right now.”
3. Do keep in regular contact with your friend/family member struggling in their mental health and don’t take it personally if they are not as “happy and fun to be around” or “outgoing” as they used to be.
Having personally experienced multiple depressive episodes, I know the struggles and difficulties of even getting up in the morning. A social gathering with many people I don’t know very well? That’s like me climbing Mt. Everest, mate! That’s a lot of effort for someone with social anxiety and depression.
While I don’t want to be alone, I don’t have the energy to interact with people and to pretend to be happy and nice to people when I feel like I am dying inside. I also feel incredibly self-conscious that people can see I am sad and struggling. I have feelings of pride to hide this “weak” side of me.
I have canceled on numerous people due to depression because I have been too anxious and afraid I will have a panic attack while out. Most people don’t even know I have them, because I am usually reluctant to go out if I feel one coming on. I once went out with someone, who took my panic attack symptoms to be a joke. Literally. They just laughed at me and did not take me seriously. That really hurt and made me want to avoid all social contact for awhile… until I started to trust and build a closer friendship with people who aren’t like them.
There are people who will understand you and there are people who don’t and you don’t have to be friends with them. Please continue to reach out to them. Maybe you can’t physically meet up with them, but you can send them a message with encouragement, love and let them know you are there for them any time they need or want to talk.
4. Do help them with resources to help themselves and encourage them to seek help
If someone tells you they are struggling, don’t think you are now responsible for their well-being and to prevent them from doing harm to themselves. Yes, you care about them, but… well, we aren’t all trained professional therapists and psychiatrists (though that’s great if you are, keep doing a good job). So, while we can offer peer support, we can help them with real therapy and medications.
Let them know about different helplines, drop-in places and understanding GPs who can help point them in the right direction. If they are worried about going to their first therapy session alone, maybe offer to accompany them for the first few times until they feel comfortable going alone. Help them build a support network for themselves. This helps you as well so you don’t have to bear the full weight and responsibility for their well-being. Recommending good articles, websites, books, music and movies about mental health also help increase their knowledge about the illness too.
5. Don’t stereotype people by their mental illness.
I’ve touched on this in a way on my post about autism myths. Mental illness manifests differently in everyone and by judging, you aren’t helping the situation. Even if we have a common mental illness, each person’s experience of it is different. After learning I might have autism spectrum disorder, I have since then had the opportunity to meet many others who also have autism… and I can say, without a doubt, they come in all shapes and sizes: Extroverts, introverts, non-verbals and just your everyday quiet dude, they are mostly interesting people. There is no point in trying to generalize, but there are common traits.
One other thing I thought I may add here: I have found doctors sometimes don’t take certain physical symptoms I have seriously because they think it is due to my mental illness. This can include things like my asthma and recurrent migraines — “Oh, it’s just because of your panic attacks, anxiety and insomnia!” — but the thing is, I literally can’t breathe and I also have asthma. Also, I have ended up in the hospital three times due to my “migraines;” I hope you get my point I am trying to make.
Anyway, I am sure there are many more do’s and don’ts in interacting with people with mental illnesses. I am curious as to what people have said to you because of your mental illness. Let me know in the comments below!
Follow this journey on the author’s blog.