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.