How To Support People With Mental Illness

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

I’m very lucky. I have bipolar 2 disorder, but I’m surrounded by people who understand what that means. It’s difficult enough to have mental illness: you’ve overlooked; you’re derided; you’re never quite “enough” to modern society, especially if, like me, you can’t work an eight-hour day outside the home (not that I can’t work much longer than eight hours, I just can’t stand the stress of doing it somewhere else or for someone else). Mental illness is hard and isolating. You lose touch with friends. People misunderstand you.

Living around people who don’t know how to deal with someone who has moderate to severe mental illness — and I have — only worsens it. You become afraid: when will my disease show itself? How bad will it be this time? How will I cope alone, and will it be enough? Thoughts like this can turn even a sunny day dark. It feels like being unloved, and in a sense, it is: a failure to love a whole person.

But my husband understands that once in a long while, I will need him to come home from work: my pill bottle has become more attractive as a whole than as individual doses. I am lucky that his administrative staff understands he has a wife with moderate to severe mental illness that occasionally flares up. They don’t ask questions, other than, “Why are you still here?” My best friends understand that I may suddenly go radio-silent. When that happens, I need space, and I’ll get back to them eventually. My own bosses not only tell me to take mental health breaks, but check on me in between. These people make me cry with gratitude. They understand. They take care of me and make my life possible.

People with mental illness need a special kind of support. People may want to give it, but unlike those who surround me — who are all highly educated in how to cope with people who have mental illnesses — they might not know how. Johns Hopkins estimates that 26% of Americans will deal with mental illness in any given year. 9.5% will deal with depression; 18% will cope with an anxiety disorder. You know someone with a moderate to severe mental health issue. Here’s how to support them.

Acknowledge Their Struggle With Mental Illness

No one I know pretends my brain is wired normally. They do not act as if I don’t have bipolar 2. That doesn’t mean they treat me differently. But they acknowledge that I may react differently to situations or misread tone. Many people often lapse into long silences; when I do that, my husband asks, “Are you okay, or just quiet?” He gives me a chance to talk and acknowledges that I might, indeed, not feel okay.

No one who loves me pretends I’m normal. Why would they? If they love me, they accept all of me, and therefore, they have to accept that I have bipolar 2. They don’t ignore that last month, I spent two weeks miserably adjusting to medication.

Be There If They Need You

Be a resource. If you’re a spouse or close friend, that may mean you need to stay with them at odd times and deal with the messiness of mental illness: the tears, the sadness, the rage. But sometimes, they may just need your physical presence. When I had my last bad episode, I spent some time sitting in my friend Patrick’s garage. We didn’t talk about my recent drop into suicidal tendencies. I think we watched Key & Peele and Matt Baume’s analysis of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I left his place feeling far better. He didn’t do anything in particular other than hang out, let me steal some Pall Malls, and be one of my best friends.

The closer you are to someone with mental illness, the more likely you are to see the messiness. That’s okay. The messiness isn’t their sum total. It’s only a part of them, and while it’s not a particularly attractive part of them, you signed on to love them no matter what. Your best strategy: ask that person beforehand what they need most when they’re having problems. My husband and I started doing a lot better when he realized I didn’t want him to fix my problems, but listen to them.

Know That Mental Illness May Make Them Act Differently

Sometimes mental illness may take over, and people may do and say things they wouldn’t normally do or say. It’s not them: it’s their condition. An astute person realizes when the person they know and the reaction they see don’t match. It might not be the best idea to mention it (nothing will make me angrier mid-breakdown than someone telling me that my emotions, which are very real, are only a symptom of my bipolar disorder). But it may be best to simply file it away or forgive it.

For example, the day before my last breakdown, I picked a fight with my boss and refused to back down. She kept telling me that “this isn’t like you.” A week later, I looked back and realized that was sign #1 I was spiraling. She knew before anyone else that something was up. Maybe she didn’t know I was heading for a breakdown, but she understood I wasn’t acting normally.

Next time someone says that several times, I’ll listen a little differently, I think.

Always Stay Calm

As the person without mental illness, you have to be the strong person. In this particular situation, being the strong person means not arguing (my boss didn’t really argue so much as keep telling me to chill), not crying with them, and most importantly, not losing your patience.

No, we can’t snap out of it. No, we can’t stop thinking that. No, we can’t stop crying. Don’t you think that we’d stop whatever behavior is annoying you if we could? Believe me, it bothers us far more than it bothers you. It may be annoying to hear us say we’re worried the whole family will die in a fiery inferno; it’s far worse to obsessively think about it. You can gently suggest another activity if we’re not weeping. But don’t ever tell us to stop it, say you wish we would stop it, or tell us our behavior inconveniences you.

Mental Illness Is Like Physical Illness

It’s tiring. We might disappear for a while. Understand that we don’t have enough energy to answer your phone call, text message, or email. We’re not trying to ignore you. We’re trying to save our energy to do other hard things, like shower or eat.

If we were recovering from a broken leg, you’d probably offer to bring us a meal. If you know someone is dealing with a breakdown from severe mental illness, GrubHub them a pizza (I’m not saying this for free pizza). They’re tired, and their partner is likely tired from coping with them and any children they may have.

But most of all, give us space and grace. Please don’t think less of us because of our illness: please don’t think we’re less capable, but please realize that sometimes, we may need help. We may need space to hurt, and we may need grace when we fail to live up to societal expectations. We’re not normal, and we never will be. But if you help and support us, we can be our best selves.

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