My father died when I was 12 years old, and while memories from that time are both specific and vague — I can recall the color of my mother’s slippers but not my father’s last words — the one thing I’ll never forget was the food. The brunch at his memorial was filling and endless. There were two types of cheese; three types of pasta; countless salads, sides, and bite-sized snacks; and warm chocolate chip cookies. They were chewy and sweet and melted in your mouth. The days after his death were full of drop-in deliveries. Our fridge was full of casseroles and crock pot meals. And since he died during the holiday season, we were given all the fixins’ for a festive supper.
Yams. Frozen hams. Corn. Mashed potatoes.
And it sustained us. It literally and figuratively fed our souls.
But when I found myself struggling in the winter of 2017 — when I was deep in the throes of a depressive episode; unable to work, eat, parent, or sleep — my phone was silent. No one asked me how I was. No one “stopped by,” or offered to help, and my cabinets were empty.
No one makes a chicken bake when you survive a suicide attempt.
I understand why. Mental illness is scary and often misunderstood. It is human nature to fear that which we do not know. Of course, science has come a long way. We now know mental illness can be caused by numerous factors, including genetics, a chemical imbalance, or environmental stressors. Addiction can also cause (or be a symptom of) a mental health disorder. But still there is a lot of misinformation out there, i.e., mental illness is considered a flaw or something that we can control with “positive thinking.” Those living with said illness are considered “weak” and we are seen as unpredictable. Many believe those with mental illness are dangerous, volatile, and violent.
So the shame continues. The silence continues, and those struggling live in secrecy. We keep our “dark” thoughts to ourselves.
But the truth is those living with mental ailments need just as much aid and assistance as those struggling with physical ones because these illnesses aren’t just “in your head.” Anxiety disorders and panic disorders can paralyze you. They can keep you from working, driving, or leaving the house. Depression can cause backaches and headaches. Digestive symptoms are also par for the course, and most mental health disorders cause fatigue. A deep inexplicable type of exhaustion which makes the most menial tasks impossible.
So talk to them, in a calm and relaxed manner. Engage them in a way that is familiar. Make them comfortable. Listen, without shame, judgement, or guilt. Be engaged and responsive no matter what, and do not let silence stop you.
When someone is going through cancer, you don’t wait for them to tell you how you can help: you act. You offer to drive them to appointments, or take their kids to school. You send gift cards and certificates for manicures, spa days, and cleaning services. And — yes — you make (and bring) them food because small gestures go a long way.
But sufferers of mental illness are often met with little more than silence.
Here to Help suggests you do whatever you can to support a normal, healthy lifestyle.
You should also reach out … often. Because while I could — and probably should— ask for help, mental illness is lonely and isolating. It makes you believe you are not strong enough, smart enough, attractive enough, or “good” enough. You feel unworthy of care, attention, and love. And I know that, when I am struggling, I am also terrified of rejection.
Being “ignored” has the potential to exacerbate my symptoms, so I clam up, shut up, and shut down.
So if you know someone is having a hard time — if they (or a loved one) are struggling with a mental health disorder — or if you are worried they may be hurting, take them out or head over to their house with a bag of bagels and a cup of coffee. Even if they don’t talk, they’ll have a full stomach and appreciate your effort. Perhaps more than you know.
For more information about how you can help a friend or loved one (or yourself), call the SAHMSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP or visit the National Alliance for Mental Illnessfor tips and resources.