It’s been 14 days since I last contemplated suicide. 14 days since I considered taking my life. And while numerous things kept me here — while medication, guilt, shame, fear, and a solid mental healthcare team helped me stay grounded and stay alive — the real reason I’m still breathing, the real reason my heart is still beating, is because of my friends. Because I reached out to them and asked for support, and they were there, with open ears and arms. But not everyone is as fortunate as I am.
While mental health conditions are common — it is believed that one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in any given year — these disorders are still highly chastised and stigmatized. Mental health conditions are very misunderstood. And figuring out how to support someone with a mental illness can be tricky. Knowing what to do in a time of crisis can be tough.
Here are eight ways to be a good friend to someone with mental illness, today and everyday.
Ask about their feelings, not just things and facts.
Most of us ask how others are doing. After all, one of the most commonly asked questions is “How was your day?” But leading a conversation this way can actually be dismissive, i.e. when we talk about our days, we talk about things and facts. Who we saw. How work was. What we ate. The conversation is superficial. It doesn’t ask for more. But a simple shift in our verbiage can change the context of this question entirely. Instead of saying “How was your day?”, say “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling today?”
Acknowledge their illness — and the difficulties they face.
Living with illness is tough, but living with an invisible illness (like mental illness) is particularly trying. You cannot treat physical symptoms, for example. The war of mental illness is waged internally, between your ears and in your heart and head, and this makes many sufferers feel crazy. They believe they should be able to control their thoughts and feelings. Some discredit their illness, because it isn’t visible or tangible. It feels made up, false, or not real. But one of the best things you can do to support someone with mental illness is to name their illness, acknowledge its presence, and to recognize the ways it affects their life. You can and should acknowledge the difficulties they face.
While asking your friend about their feelings is important, listening is imperative. Be responsive and make eye contact. Hear what they are saying: the good, bad, and ugly. Do not shame or blame them for their thoughts and feelings. Instead, offer empathy. Say things like “that must be hard.” And know when to sit in silence; the best listeners embrace the lulls in conversation as much as they do the conversation itself.
Offer empathy, not sympathy.
When someone you love is hurting, you want to help them. It’s normal, a basic human response. But it’s important you do so in a warm, caring way. It’s important that you offer empathy, not sympathy. Your friend needs love and understanding. They need compassion, generosity, and support.
Not sure of the difference? Empathetic individuals try to understand others feelings — i.e. they try to put themselves in another’s shoes — while those who are sympathetic offer condolences. They feel sorrow or pity for their struggles and encounters.
Validate what he or she is saying.
Have you ever opened up and bared your soul only to be shot down or told you are dramatic or crazy? That your feelings are (more or less) wrong? It sucks, right? It hurts and is dismissive. It makes you feel crazy and small. Yeah, well, don’t do that. Instead, validate your friends’ feelings. Let them know that what they are experiencing is normal and okay, and remind them there is help. No matter how bleak things seem now, there is hope.
Be present in times of crisis — and in times of calm.
Being a consistent, supportive presence in times of crisis is huge, i.e. knowing you have someone to lean on and talk to can make your day that much better. With support, things suddenly become a bit brighter. But individuals living with mental illness don’t just want you there in times of crisis, they want you present in times of calm. They want to enjoy the little things with you when their anxiety lessens or depression lifts.
Don’t write someone with a mental illness off as a “downer.” Don’t assume they do not want to go places or do things, and remember, most people who live with mental illness do so gracefully. They survive and thrive, and they want to do so with their friends.
Give them the opportunity to open up, but enough space to guide the conversation.
Talking to your friends about life (and yes, mental illness) is important. Scratch that: Having open, honest conversations with your friends is essential to your wellbeing and growth, i.e. the ability to trust one another and connect on a deeper level is the foundation of friendship. It is the bedrock of any true bond. But it’s important you let them lead the discussion — and at their own pace. Don’t put pressure on them to tell you anything they aren’t ready to talk about. Don’t undermine them or be dismissive of their thoughts, fears, feelings, and concerns. Ask guided questions, don’t be pushy. Never be abrasive, forceful, abrupt, short-tempered, flippant, or rude.
Offer the basics, like rides to appointments and/or a meal.
While it may seem silly to add something so simple to this list, small gestures go a long way — particularly in times of crisis, depressions, or mental health flair-ups. If your friend or loved is struggling, you can (and should) offer to drive them to their appointments, or pick up their medication. Asking them to go out and do “normal” things is also nice, even if you know they will say no. Invite them to the movies, the park, a coffee shop, or the mall. And sending food is a great way to let someone know you care. Truly. There’s a reason why casseroles have long been sent to those who are sick or grieving.