When You Don’t Support Someone Struggling with Mental Illness

I have usually been on the receiving end of support when it comes to matters of the mind. My mental illness therapy and recovery has greatly relied on the encouragement of others, the push from loved ones to focus on getting better, the positive words and actions of my network to put this journey above all else.

I have recently found myself now on the giving end of support. This is new territory for me. It’s just as scary for me to offer support as it is for the other person facing a new journey to better mental health. One of the biggest obstacles I have to work through as I take on this support role is helping to instill the mindset of, “You come first. Don’t let anybody steer you off course. This is the right thing to do to get better.” Upon thinking about this more, I realized how sad of a reality this is. The reality of the naysayers, the one’s who “don’t get it” and want to make you feel their doubt and skepticism about your choice to seek help and recover. Then I stumbled upon this most excellent The Mighty article this morning on how supporting people with a mental illness is everybody’s business. So I knew I needed to expand upon this and write something. I can’t accept the disconnect I am seeing anymore, especially through my new personal experience. I want to tell you just how you play a role in the journey to mental health recovery. Yes you. All of you. Maybe not as a person who is a mental illness sufferer, but as a person who is a mother, father, sibling, lover, friend, relative, coworker, boss, acquaintance, store clerk, or passerby to someone who is.

When you don’t support someone with a mental illness:

  • You immediately assume there is something inherently “wrong” with them
  • You trivialize their struggles, often making a joke out of it or poking fun at their destructive habits
  • You ask invasive questions like, “What do you mean you have an appointment every week?” or “Why are you so emotional?” or “What’s gotten into you lately?”
  • You encourage and pressure tempting activities, like drinking or smoking, they are trying to become more mindful of, cut back on, or quit
  • You ignore the reality that is mental illness, and consider their behavior “dramatic”, “attention-seeking”, “weak”, or “incapable”
  • You fail to see how hard they are working on paving a healthier pathway through life by instead focusing on their hardships and behaviors they are dedicating so much of themselves to correct
  • You make internalizing their struggles easier
  • You allow their destructive, self-harming habits to seem more rational
  • You assume someone else will be there to support them, even if they won’t


When you do support someone with a mental illness:

  • You understand they are trying, no matter the level of effort
  • You accept that mental illness recovery and therapy is difficult. That it is not a joke. That it is life-changing and emotionally overwhelming. That it is crucial to staying alive and well
  • You don’t ask questions that warrant really personal, intimate answers. You wait to feel invited to discuss the issues at hand. You base conversations on their comfort level, not yours
  • You recognize that social activities for some can be addictions for others. You accept “no” for an answer. You even change your own behaviors around them to eliminate temptation during their recovery
  • You accept mental illness as truth. That is it not made up. That it is not an excuse. That it is medical. That is has scientific proof. That your inability to understand what it feels like does not change facts
  • You come to terms with their destructive behaviors as part of a bigger, rooted issue they are working to pry from the depths within and address. You don’t fixate on their shortcomings, but understand that bad habits take time to break and new habits take time to form
  • You allow them to feel comfortable in their struggles. You don’t isolate them as an outcast
  • You offer solutions to avoiding temptation. You offer a new perspective on how to cope. You realize everybody has problems and can always use advice, big or small
  • You don’t assume anybody else is in their court. You offer whatever level of help you can, relative to the relationship you hold with them. You don’t let them feel alone. You offer a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark period. You choose to support life

See the difference?

Mental illness affects all of us. Everybody. Whether you’re on the receiving end of support, or someone who needs to play a role – big or small – in someone else’s support network. We have to own this, not as segmented societal groups, but as humanity. Let’s do better.

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Mental Illness Awareness Week

It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week and We all Need to Talk About it

My father sent me an email this morning with just a link to a Salem News Letter to the Editor. It was an important gesture for him to send it to me, and now I feel compelled to share it with the rest of you. But I want to take it a step further. I don’t want you to just read the link that I could have easily posted to my social media channels. I want you to more than see what the words mean beyond the two paragraphs written in the link. I want you to understand it. Understand it from someone who is living the exact purpose of the letter: a person battling mental illness who experiences the firsthand stigma it has created.

This week (October 4-10) is Mental Illness Awareness Week. The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts (NAMI Mass) wants to make you aware that mental illness affects 1 in 4 adults. I will make you aware that I am 1 of those 4 adults. NAMI Mass also conducted a survey that reveals some disappointing results – although mental illnesses are the leading cause of disability in the workplace, only 27% of people feel comfortable talking about their mental illness at work. I am luckily 1 person in that 27%. Let me be honest, though, I did not start talking about my mental illness until a week ago, when I was at my breaking point, when I was in crisis mode. That’s not the best approach. That’s not when I should have been speaking up. And this is why we need to talk about it.

CAMH

The stigma of mental illness is still very real. People get uncomfortable being around those with a mental illness. Some feel unsafe. Some perceive it as a sign of weakness, or a vain indulgence of one’s self. Some seclude and ignore those who are suffering. Why do people do this? Two reasons: because they don’t experience it firsthand and they can’t see it tangibly on the outside. The problem here is that we can comparatively take a physically noticeable ailment, like paralysis or cancer, and even if we don’t know what it feels like to experience these firsthand, we can see the toll it takes on a person’s body. We can then empathize, accommodate and advocate for a better quality of life for these sufferers. For the mental illness sufferer, the struggle and toll occurs on the inside of the body – where nobody can truly see the distress and degeneration. When the results of mental illness are projected to the outside world, they are still intangible: stress, crying, yelling, withdrawn behavior, sadness, fear, paranoia, nerves, etc. And unfortunately, when the results of mental illness are left untreated and advance to display a physical toll on the outside, it is in the darkest moments when sufferers are most misunderstood and unaccepted: self-harming, harming others, alcoholism, drug addiction, attempted suicide, death.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Massachusetts says only 52.8% of affected adults seek treatment. This is not okay. All mental illness sufferers should have the resources, opportunities and encouragement to seek treatment just as anybody with a physical illness does. Treatment in 2015 is vast. It comes in many forms. Therapies, medications, alternative healing, herbal medicine and many more are widely available, but not often obvious and accessible. Work benefits that support mental illness treatment and HR services are also not widely communicated across companies or encouraged to be used. Again, we need to change this. Addiction, harm and suicide should not be considered an option. It will always be a thought for a mental health sufferer, but there are ways to make it from becoming a reality.

Let me bring this back to my experience. I’ve suffered from chronic anxiety and depression since I was 14. I struggled in my teen years to find a productive way to cope. I self-harmed often and rejected therapy. As a young adult, I suffered more and had some difficult experiences with prescription psych medication, addiction and therapy. Today, I am still battling anxiety and depression along with panic and mild OCD, but I have learned through the aid of my family and boyfriend, doctors and a supportive workplace, to seek appropriate treatment. I am in therapy. I am working on an alternative medicine approach. I am taking time off work to focus on me and to heal. I have a team of people behind me pushing me towards success. I was ashamed at first to bring this to my workplace, to try and convey what I was suffering. But once I did, the overwhelming support was shocking. I was encouraged to take the time. I was explained my benefits and rights I have from my employer. I was messaged by multiple coworkers in support of my needs. I was not a victim of this stigma that so many others are.

I am a girlfriend, a daughter, cat mom, marketing professional, friend, artist, writer, thinker and dreamer. I am not an incapable, burdening, unproductive, dangerous, self-indulgent basket case. I have a mental illness, but I am not “mental.” I am not afraid of what people will say or think of me. I have a voice and will fight for those who can’t find theirs just yet.

Mental Illness Awareness Week ends on Saturday, but the conversation will continue for a lifetime. I guarantee you know at least one person suffering. Heck, most of you reading this know me. But beyond our relationship, there are most likely others in your life suffering, maybe even you. I encourage you to advocate for those people, or yourself, and take the necessary steps to ensure proper treatment. I also encourage you to tell 3 other people the statistics I’ve shared about mental illness in this post to continue breaking the stigma that this isn’t real, and that those suffering don’t deserve the same rights as the physically ill. This is real. We all deserve to feel healthy, inside and out.

A few more links that can help:

NAMI Massachusetts (local resources and support)

To Write Love on Her Arms (my favorite supporting nonprofit)

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (where I’ve learned a lot about my conditions)

Additionally, program in your phone 1-800-SUICIDE. It’s a hotline that will always be there for you.

Thanks for reading, and more importantly, for understanding.