I was exposed to learning about mental health at a very young age, being diagnosed with a mental illness before I even reached 10 years old. Though most people know that, something not many people may know is that the person who I have been able to call my best friend since Kindergarten also suffers pretty badly from mental illness herself. Because of this, I have learned lessons about dealing with people of this nature that I would never have learned had I not been so close to her as she faces the ups and downs of her own mental health story.
It's one thing to suffer from a mental illness yourself, but it's a surprisingly different thing to see someone so close to you suffer from one. The lessons you learn differ dramatically and I am not only thankful to have someone to go on this journey with me, but also someone who has taught me so much about how to treat people who are on the same journey as we are.
There are 7 lessons regarding how to treat people like us that I found most important and most worthy of sharing. My hope is that they might help to educate those reading who may be in a similar situation.
1. Never tell them they are "getting better" or that you know they'll "get over this" someday.
One of the hardest pills for someone who is mentally ill to swallow is that which forces you to come to terms with the fact that this is something we will most likely have to live with for the rest of our lives. Though you may be correct in saying that it will get easier for us to accept that reality, a legitimate mental illness is not something that will ever just go away. All we can really do is learn different coping mechanisms to make our daily lives a little bit easier. We know you mean good when you say it and you just want to encourage us, but it often reminds us of the harsh reality that we are, in a way, forever trapped inside our own minds.
2. Suicide jokes aren't funny.
This one shouldn't require much explanation, but I will give it anyway. As most people know already, mental illness can often cause suicidal tendencies. Though not all of us are affected by these thoughts, it is certainly not uncommon. By making a "joke" out of it, as many people so casually do in this day and age, you are doing far more harm than you may realize. For one thing, you are bringing up a topic that these people most likely don't want to think about, especially not while they're interacting with other people. Besides that, you are unintentionally delegitimizing their struggles. Making a joke out of a situation makes it seem less important than it actually is, which should not be done with a topic that is as serious as one's life.
3. Sometimes you just need to be around to listen, not to give advice.
I have very mother-like tendencies, which often leads me to find myself trying to give people advice on whatever they may be dealing with at the moment. I have recently learned, though, that sometimes that may not be the best thing to do. A lot of times, if someone is coming to you when they are not having the best mental health day, they aren't looking for advice. For the most part, we know that there is not much that anyone else can do to help us. Sometimes all we need is for someone to listen to us and make us feel heard. It makes us feel more normal about the things we are experiencing as well as makes us feel less isolated from the general population.
4. Never make them feel like what they are dealing with is an inconvenience for anyone but themselves.
I am not going to sit here and pretend like dealing with somebody while they are in panic mode is easy. However, it is crucial that you never make them feel like they are being a nuisance to you when they are in the midst of their hardest struggles. Even though you may be stressed out trying to help them and may often find yourself growing angry, I can promise you that what they are feeling is far worse. More importantly, it is completely out of their control. As somebody who loves them and has earned their trust, it is critical that you offer nothing but love and willingly help them when they make themselves vulnerable enough to ask for it.
5. Make sure they know that they aren't crazy, and what they are feeling is valid.
A disgusting term that should be squashed when referring to the mentally ill is the word "crazy." This word implies something that is flawed and the last thing we should do is make anyone feel like their mental illness defines them or makes them any less of a person. We are aware that what we are feeling is not normal and is often irrational, but that doesn't make these feelings any less valid. Just because you may never worry about a particular thing does not mean that we don't still feel the same amount of distress over that thing that you might feel over something that you deem to be worth worrying about. By making it known that you don't know how we could feel "so stressed about something so small" makes us feel like we aren't normal and we shouldn't be having these feelings. However, the reality is that we are in no control of those feelings and therefore should not be ridiculed or criticized for them.
6. Don't get mad at them for not doing things because they are having a rough mental health day.
Nobody likes to be canceled on, especially last minute. Unfortunately, this is common coming from people who suffer from mental illness. We often get bursts of confidence that prompt us to make plans that are slightly out of our comfort zone. Then when the time comes for us to execute those plans, we no longer feel as confident as we once did and do whatever we can to stay in an atmosphere that makes us feel safe. Even though it may seem dumb and flaky to you, we never enjoy canceling on you. I know that personally, I feel overwhelming guilt when I cancel plans at the last minute due to reasons regarding my mental health. However, it is often better that we cancel rather than us going through with the plans and feeling miserable the entire time.
7. Familiarize yourself with their warning signs.
Everybody who is suffering from mental illness will have some tell-tale signs that they are experiencing feelings that are not normal. As somebody who is close to them, it is your job to be able to recognize those signs and give them the help they need. Common signs include sudden isolation, changes in breathing, mood swings, and anything else that might be out of the ordinary. However, it is important to note that "abnormal behavior" varies by person and not everyone will have the same warning signs. And remember: you will never be able to fix them, but you may be able to make that particular situation slightly easier on them.