Since I’ve started writing about mental health issues and my experiences, the question I get most often is, “How is your hair so shiny all the time?”*
The question I get second-most-often is, “My daughter/son/mother/person is going through depression/anxiety right now, and I feel so helpless. How can I help them?”
Never fear, gentle readers! I’ve got you covered.
If you’re just joining us, I’m a college faculty member, tutor and general rabblerouser. I am in a very happy, stable relationship and I have a great life. I have also suffered from clinical anxiety for my entire life. It hasn’t been easy, but I manage my symptoms – through therapy, lifestyle choices, and most importantly, medication – and am able to live a full life. For all the parents out there, this should be reassuring. My parents weren’t certain I’d ever get there, but I did.
There is always hope.
In addition to hope, though, there’s you. You love Your Person, whether that person is a girlfriend, boyfriend, child, spouse, parent, or friend. You hate that Your Person has to go through the trauma of mental illness. You want to help, but you don’t know how. That’s perfectly logical: if Your Person had a broken leg, you’d know to move the ladders and not drug them and put them in your car trunk for funsies. If Your Person had diabetes, you’d know not to forcefeed them Ding-Dongs while singing Fiona Apple’s Greatest Hits. These are logical actions to take.
But mental illness isn’t clear-cut, easy, or logical. If you’ve never experienced mental illness, it may seem like there’s nothing you can do to help. It may seem like the person you used to know and love isn’t there anymore, or that you don’t know how to talk to this “new” person. But that’s not true at all.
The person you love, Your Person, is struggling to process information and emotions in a way that may be new and frightening for them. There are ways you can help.
Find out about Your Person’s condition – do some Googling!
Let me be clear: everyone’s experience with mental illness is unique. The brain is so complex and neural pathways are so particular that there’s no “One Size Fits All” to depression, anxiety, OCD or any other condition. That being said, there are certain common symptoms that characterize one condition or another. The first thing that you can do if you love someone with a mental illness is to educate yourself about that particular illness.
Blind Googling can be dangerous, of course. Stay away from Reddit – though that’s more of a general word of advice than anything else – and trust reputable sources. MentalHealth.gov is a great place to start. So is MedlinePlus, which is run by the National Library of Medicine. The One Source to Rule Them All, though, is the National Institute for Mental Health’s website. There’s a lot of really great information out there that can help you get a feel for what Your Person is going through. If you do your own research and gather some information, it doesn’t put the burden of explanation on someone who might not even understand what is happening to them, let alone how to explain it to someone else.
It’s important to talk to Your Person about their illness, the same way you’d talk about a broken leg or abdominal pain. Help them to break the silence by asking about what you’ve read. “I read that anxiety sometimes makes you feel _________. Is that what happens to you?”
Say the word out loud. Say it.
Not “vampire.” Please don’t say that one. If you say that one three times in a mirror, Robert Pattinson shows up and puts your name in the Goblet of Fire.
Depression. Anxiety. Bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia. Borderline personality.
Don’t call Your Person’s condition “the stuff you’re going through right now.” Don’t call it “your issues.” Don’t call it “your emotional problems.”
Use the correct terminology and don’t make a big deal out of it! Could you imagine getting a diabetes diagnosis and hearing your mother refer to it as “your sugar problems”? It’s diabetes, Mom. I’m not having a gang dance-off with a packet of American Crystals.
Saying the words out loud is important. In some cases, just saying the word in casual conversation does more than an emotional heart to heart. Your Person is going through an incredibly difficult fight right now, and one of the worst things you could do is refuse to call it by its proper name. Calling it by its proper, medical name reminds everyone that mental illness is just that: an illness affecting the mind. It’s biological, and it’s nobody’s fault.
Don’t tiptoe around Your Person.
Mental illness affects how Your Person’s brain processes sensory information. It affects their emotions and their thoughts. It can make them frightened or sad or angry, but it doesn’t mean they get to treat you badly. It doesn’t turn them into a raging dickwad. That’s just called “being a raging dickwad.”
If Your Person demeans or belittles you, that’s not okay. Our illnesses are not carte blanche to mistreat others. Coddling us because we have mental illnesses just reinforces the idea that we are irreparably broken. I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t always treat people the way they deserve to be treated. It’s not because I have anxiety. It’s because I have a human brain and a human soul. We’re rude sometimes.
My loved ones and I fight – that’s normal. But I don’t get a free pass because I have a mental illness.
Remind Your Person that what they’re going through is real.
I guarantee you that Your Person will be punishing himself or herself for this illness. Your Person will second-guess every decision, play every moment over and over again, and feel guilty for being “weak.” Their mind is failing them, and they are internalizing that failure.
When I was at my lowest, and anxiety was running my life, I punished myself constantly. I felt weak because nobody else I knew got physically ill every morning. Nobody else I knew was too afraid to drive a car. Nobody else I knew had panic attacks every night. I remember turning to my dad at one point, in tears, and apologizing to him. “I know it’s not real,” I said. “I know it’s just in my head. But I’m so scared all the time.”
What he said to me changed my entire perspective on my illness. He looked at me and he said, “Sure, it’s in your head. But like Dumbledore said, that doesn’t make it any less real.”
My dad is a colossal nerd.
It was what I needed to hear, and it’s what Your Person needs to hear. Yes, mental illness is “all in your head.” By definition, it affects your mind. That doesn’t make it any less real than a disease of the stomach or the lungs. It’s real, and it’s happening to Your Person. It’s impossible to fight an illness without first acknowledging it.
Encourage Your Person to take advantage of treatment, but don’t push “cures” on them.
It will take Your Person a while to develop the coping mechanisms and treatments that they need to function. One antidepressant might be a bad fit for them, and that might send them right back to Square One. One therapist might not be helping, so it’s time to find another. Perhaps cardio isn’t as good a fit as yoga, and maybe cutting out alcohol is the ticket.
This is a lifestyle shift for them – moving from illness to wellness. There isn’t a magical cure, but there are a host of options out there to help. It usually takes a combination of medication, talk therapy, lifestyle changes like exercise and diet, and meditation to train the brain out of depressive or anxious pathways. Encourage Your Person to try a variety of treatments to see what works best. Above all, encourage them to do what feels right to them – not to their mother or their friend or some idiot on Fox News.
It makes me furious to see people suffer because they’ve bought into a stigma surrounding psychiatric medications. Our culture tells us that people who take medication for mental illnesses are dangerous and uncontrollable, even though statistics show that one in eleven Americans takes antidepressants. Now, not every medication is going to work for every brain, and Your Person may find that other methods are more effective. As someone who loves them, your role is to encourage them to do whatever it takes to get well – and to avoid pushing one “cure” on them. So essential oils really help you feel less stressed? Fantastic. That doesn’t mean they’ll “fix” your depressed child. Don’t swallow the snake oil, ladies and gentlemen, and don’t buy into conspiracy theories about “Big Pharma” and neurotrackers in Prozac.
Understand the sensory aspects of mental illness.
Anxiety doesn’t just mean feeling frightened or stressed. Depression doesn’t just mean feeling sad. Mental illness affects Your Person’s perception of the world, and many people with mental illness struggle to process sensory information the way a neurotypical person would.
I can’t handle tags in clothing. Many children can’t, but I never outgrew that particular quirk, and if they’re left in, I can’t focus on anything else. Please bear in mind that I’m a functioning adult who holds down a job and meaningful relationships. I had a 4.0 in college – I have my act together. Want to see me throw a temper tantrum? Leave the tags in. They make my skin crawl.
Loud noises, busy streets, parties – these are all places where our senses can become overwhelmed by a mixture of sound, sights and smells. If Your Person shuts down and stops responding to you, they’re probably having a panic attack as their brain tries to sift through all of this material. Be patient. If you feel like building them a blanket fort, I can guarantee you they’ll appreciate it. If they don’t, then you should reconsider your relationship with this fool who can’t appreciate a blanket fort.
Take “No” for an answer – and reassure Your Person that you still love them.
Spontaneity is terrifying, guys. It’s like finding a walnut in brownie not labeled as a “Nutty Piece of Shit.” That’s the moment you realize that life is all a giant lie and that the universe is moving slowly towards entropy. All of a sudden, there are terrifying new social obligations to consider and choices to make.
At my very worst, I couldn’t even consider parties. It took all the piss and vinegar I had to force myself out the door every morning for classes and work. All I wanted was to stay at home where it was safe, and there were few things more terrifying than a room full of people. Clearly that wasn’t the healthiest mentality, but even though I’m in a better place now, I still have to pace myself. I’m a work in progress: I go to parties now – but I usually turn down any invitation I get the day of. I just don’t have enough time to psych myself up for an evening of peopling. As rewarding as socializing is, it takes a great deal of effort.
Your Person will likely turn down a lot of your invitations and suggestions. It’s not because they don’t care about you; it’s just that when you have mental illness, everything seems insurmountable. I used to panic after refusing an invitation because even though I didn’t want to go to the party, I didn’t want people to forget about me. I was convinced that eventually, I’d have missed my chance to matter to people.
Reassure Your Person that it’s okay if they don’t feel up to a kegger. Tell them that you’re not going anywhere and that you love them even if they never touch a beer funnel again.
Remind Your Person of what they’ve accomplished.
When I’m feeling particularly terrified of the world outside, my darling boyfriend always reminds me that I’m not literal garbage. Yes, I drive right past the Publix to go to Kroger because Kroger has auto-checkout and you don’t have to talk to a cashier; yes, I refuse to watch documentaries about disasters or tragedies because I won’t sleep afterwards; yes, I think that day trips were invented to punish introverts by giving them no place to take their pants off and not talk to people. There are many things that remain terrifying to me.
And yet I cope. I survive every day in a world full of things that scare the everloving shit out of me.
Your Person feels like literal garbage right now. They look at themselves and all they see are the ways in which their mind has betrayed them. They need to hear you tell them they are brave and good and strong.
The path to wellness isn’t a straightforward one. It’s a rollercoaster of backsliding and breakthroughs, of tears and laughter, of chemical imbalances and spiritual awakenings.
And there are things you can do to help.
*Genetics and the Grace of God.