What Should I Tell My Mentally Ill Friend? How Do I Help?

The worst therapist I ever had told me, “You’re a lost cause. No one can help you. You should kill your self because you’re wasting mine and everyone’s time.” Harsh? Yes. Tough love? Maybe. Helpful? No.

The best Psychiatrist I ever had said, “If you’re going to get better, part of you has to want to get better. You may hate yourself and hate this pain. That’s okay. You can be suicidal, but you have to deep down know there is something worth fighting for. I can’t help you if you can’t help yourself.” This changed my whole perspective on my fight with depression and mental illness.

I just gave you two examples. Two mental health professionals saying essentially the same thing. One, made me want to end it all permanently. The other, gave me something to think about- something to work for.

In my illness through the years I’ve gotten some advice that has been extremely helpful. I’ve also gotten a lot of advice that (though well intended) actually has been very hurtful.

When someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, it’s important to know a few very important things.

First, and most importantly, do not think you know what they are going through. You can Empathize but don’t Sympathize. Even if you have had similar experiences, trust me when I say everyone’s journey and pain is vastly different.

This idea comes often with people who are grieving. I lost my father this year and I got well meaning messages say “I know how you feel, I lost xyz” Well no, you don’t know how I feel because you don’t know me, or my relationship with my dad. I also don’t know you and what types of feelings you felt. I can’t imagine my moms grief because she lost her soulmate, her husband. I can’t even know my brothers grief because he had a different relationship with dad and he lives farther away. I’m sure I don’t know how he feels in his grief. In the same way, everyone’s mental illnesses, traumas, life journeys are different. You can’t know the pain I’m experiencing because you are not me.

Second, it’s important to understand the ill person before offering advice. Let me explain. Imagine a man has a tumor in his brain. He goes to the doctor and he recommends chemo and radiation because he is young and healthy otherwise. Now the next day, another man goes to the same doctor. He finds out he has the exact same tumor as the other man. Now this man is the same age and seems healthy enough. The doctor decides that this man’s tumor is inoperable and he is put on hospice. Same tumor, two different recommendations. The one man was healthy and his body could fight and withstand the chemo. The second man found this tumor because he was recently diagnosed with sage 4 lung cancer that metastasized to his brain. Without knowing the patient, we couldn’t possibly give advice to either one.

In the same way, people with mental illness have gone through different things. Some need medication to survive. Other may find therapy is enough. Some respond well to harsh criticism like my therapist above. Others need a gentle push in the right direction. Some people, like me, are treatment resistant, meaning I will likely struggle the rest of my life. Others get hit hard with it, but with therapy and a first line anti depressive can live a normal life in a few years. So, before giving advice, think about the person you are trying to reach. Maybe instead of telling them what to do ask them what they think has been helpful. Ask them if they need extra support and then ask what support you can give. Don’t assume anything. You can offer advice but make sure you say something like, “I’m not sure if this would help you and if it doesn’t that’s okay. I just wanted to share something I have done to help me when I’m feeling sad/anxious etc. Don’t feel any pressure but just know I am here for you if you ever need me and I want to help.” Be kind and loving. Asking questions can help more than giving advice most of the time.

The third and final thing to remember is to respect their wishes. *I will preface if someone is suicidal or homicidal the most loving thing you can do is reach out for help for them* I know it may be hard to see someone you love stay in bed all day. I get it. You can absolutely encourage them or try to entice them to get out of bed for a little bit. In the end though, do no force the person. It will only make them grow to dislike you.

If I say, I’m feeling suicidal but I will reach out for help if I need it. Trust me. I will reach out. You are welcome to check in on me but don’t call the police because I’m working through hard thoughts. It’s all a part of the process. It’s about learning your self and your emotions. Coping is about control urges and temptation. General reminders are good and can be helpful. Always ask what is the best was to help.

Obviously I am not a medical professional and this should be read from the perspective of someone with a mental illness. I can’t claim any of this will be true for all people but my hope is that sharing my experience can help others and help reduce some of the hardships mentally ill people face. Thanks for reading.

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