To watch a loved one struggle through quicksand without being able to throw them a rope is the stuff of nightmares. At least, when you’re fighting an uphill battle, you don’t feel so painfully helpless. But watching a friend fight the same battle without being able to help them move through it is excruciating. Mental illness feels like being stuck in quicksand. It’s not hard to offer a branch to these loved ones, but for them to accept it is a different story.
After personally having years of experience and several consultations, I want to give you, a crash course into the world of metaphorical quicksand branches.
I’d like to start with dissociation. We all dissociate sometimes, usually paralyzed by the insurmountable number of tasks we have to do before a certain self-imposed deadline. For people with a mental illness, anything from addiction or panic disorder and beyond, it’s far more common. If you’ve never experienced it, it is extremely numbing. In more exact terms it is when one experiences an “out of body” feeling. For me, this feeling usually lasts one to ten hours, though you don’t really notice that until afterward, as time is somewhat nonexistent while dissociating. If you ever see the thousand mile stare, you know that dissociation is on its way.
To help your friend start by asking simple opinion based questions. I find the “would you rather” game to help a lot here. These questions bring the person back to the present and engage them in surface level thought. Asking a question about something too complex will phase through them and trying to talk them out of it won’t register as helpful. You can do it, don’t be scared to do the wrong thing.
Next, I’d like to address some key aspects of depression and anxiety. You cannot combat depression for your loved one(s). I promise you this is not a battle you can fight for them. You can, however, offer your hand in foundational support. As modern science can tell us: mental illness has genetic factors. But it is so much more than that. Many people find joy in completing difficult tasks like a project or getting a raise. For people suffering with depression, this task can be as seemingly minuscule as leaving bed or showering in the morning. While talking it out normally seems helpful, it will not aid someone suffering from depression. Trust me when I say that if someone is already suffering from depression, there is nothing anyone can say to make it go away. In fact, trying to talk it out will probably leave them feeling guilty for burdening you.
The most important thing you can do is help your loved ones take care of themselves. Go to them, physically be with them, make them clean themselves, open their blinds. These things help far more than people think they do because they say “I’m not trying to solve the problem, I’m just here to love you.”
If the person is feeling worthless, it helps to assure them that you love them and that they’re worthwhile. Over and over again. They won't believe it yet, but it'll at least stick in their heads as an idea. A small touch to the shoulder will make them feel less lonely as well. Small, subtle nuances like this will help to alleviate some of the burden that a mental illness places on ones shoulders.
For anxiety and panic attacks, make sure to get the person away from the anxiety-inducing situation so they can calm down. If that situation is their general existence (which happens more than you’d think) then make your loved one do a task that brings them joy. There is nothing wrong with prioritizing mental well-being over finishing a project, no matter how much your confused brain may think otherwise.
Above all, please do something. The worst thing you can do when a loved one has a mental illness is nothing. People with a mental illness are usually hyperaware of their surroundings and pay specific attention to people’s reactions and body language so pretending like their mental illness doesn’t exist will only add to the problem. If you do something, anything, that you genuinely believe will be helpful, it will show the person that you care. That action is enough to help because the intention is pure.
Don’t be afraid. If you love someone with a mental illness, you aren’t powerless. I promise. Love heals a lot more than people give it credit for.