Mental Health Beyond 101: On Loving Someone with Mental Illness
Do you love someone who has a mental illness? I do. Sometimes, I struggle to know how to support them. I am also a person with a mental illness (anxiety disorder), being loved and supported by friends and family. I’ve read many articles on the internet about what not to say to someone with mental illness over the years. These lists can be useful, especially if you’ve not encountered someone with say, depression, before. I’m glad these lists are available. I believe they are validating for people who struggle with mental illness and have to experience the same unhelpful comments over and over.
I also find these lists somewhat shaming, though. Good people (myself included) have said the wrong thing many times–it doesn’t make you any less good or loving that you said the “wrong thing” to someone with an illness like this. It makes you someone who cares. That’s not a bad thing, not ever. The truth is, most of us are not trained in how to talk to people who are suffering. We struggle with balancing our own emotions with theirs. We struggle with wanting to escape the suffering because it’s… well… suffering. It sucks! It’s painful to experience and painful to witness. Sometimes in mental illness it’s even targeted at us, the lovers and the friends. Go figure–in those situations, we’re not always perfect support entities. We’re just people.
I thought it might be helpful to gather some of the things I’ve learned you can do, rather than list off a bunch of things you shouldn’t do. Here’s my list:
1. Offer empathy.
Tell them you’re sorry they’re suffering. Tell them you’re here to listen if that would help. Tell them you love them.
2. Ask what you can do for them.
If they’re able to say, it seems the most prudent just to ask. Sometimes they don’t know, and that’s fine. The offer itself can make you all feel better/closer.
3. Keep your boundaries firm and take care of yourself.
People with mental illness (especially mood-related ones like depression) might sometimes angrily lash out, withdraw, or seem to be apathetic about you. You have to take on faith that (underneath whatever chemical bullshit they’re experiencing) they miss you and love you and don’t want to be hurtful toward you.
Being ill is not a free pass to behavior. I hear over and over that it is better for the people I love when I speak up and ask for what I need rather than making space for the illness over my own needs. If I need to hang out with my friend, it’s important I ask for that rather than just assume they are too sick to see me. If someone is being cruel to you do not allow it, no matter how sick they are. It’s better for both of you if they are aware of your feelings and needs.
You might find you need a break or some distance from the struggle through illness. Take it. Be grateful you can, and understand that the people you love want you to be happy and well as much as you want them to be. Take a break and care for yourself.
4. If you say the wrong thing and upset them, apologize.
Simple. If you come from a place of caring and tenderness, they will see it. Maybe not right away, but that’s the nature of an illness like this. Chemicals can cloud reality. Even Our Lady of Vulnerability, Brene Brown, says it’s okay to mess it up then come back and try again:
5. Sometimes, there’s no right thing.
Illnesses like these are full of ups and downs and unpredictability. It’s not awesome for anyone. Sometimes treatments are working, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes things that were great six months ago turn into things that are terrible now. As a person who wants to be supportive, it’s impossible to know exactly what will help at any given time.
Remember that “help” doesn’t always look like “make them feel better.” They may not be able to feel better right now. It can be difficult to bear witness to suffering and have no way to help relieve it. However, that skill can be the most valuable to a relationship with someone who has mental illness (or anyone, really).
Life is messy. It’s okay for it to look messy and imperfect. It’s okay to make a mistake with a friend, even a friend who is struggling. Good friendships and partnerships can survive mistakes and even grow as you discover what works better between you. Sometimes the best bonds are formed in the darkest of circumstances. Never be afraid to be yourself, and know that those who love you are there because of who you are, not the magic words you said to them. We’re in this together.