You just learned that your friend, spouse, boyfriend, or whoever, is suffering from a mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder. Now what?
Maybe you don’t know how to talk to them – so you don’t. Or you do… but it’s really awkward. You have no idea how to address it; do you address it? Will you hurt their feelings if you do? Will you hurt their feelings if you don’t?
This article hopes to give you some advice on how to proceed by sharing with you the things I, as a person with a mental illness, would like my friends and loved ones to know. If you’re suffering from mental illness and you like what I have to say here, share this.
Now please note, I am not a mental health professional. I am a person who suffers from Bipolar II Disorder. My insight comes from someone experiencing an illness, and my own personal interactions with that illness. Everybody is different. Every illness is different. In short, your mileage may vary depending on the individual person and the circumstances of their individual illness. Use judgement.
With that caveat aside, here are 5 things I want people to know about me after learning I have a mental illness:
#1 – I Have Boundaries
Believe it or not, not everybody is cool with talking about themselves. Some people have a really hard time with it actually.
Mental illness is still very taboo. Mental health stigma is a very real thing. Many people are not comfortable admitting they even have a mental illness. Hell, most people probably aren’t comfortable admitting it.
Please respect the fact that people may not want to talk about it. Take me for instance; I don’t really want to talk about it right now – at least not in person. I’ve spent a long time building a pretty serious wall to talking about my problems and it’s going to take some time to dismantle. So if you try to surprise me with a heart to heart about my mental illness… well… it feels sort of like this:
I’m just going to run as fast as I possibly can away from you. And then I won’t want to talk to you at all. Because I’m afraid you’re going to eat me. See? That hasn’t really accomplished anything, has it?
Now some people will want to talk about it. And that’s great! People should feel like they can talk about mental illness. If I just told you that I was diagnosed with depression, then I’ve sort of opened the door to talk about it. But if you just heard that I have depression, and you bring that up, I’m going to feel attacked, and I’m going to put my shields up.
Now you don’t necessarily want to totally ignore it either. This might lead someone to believe you don’t care. So what do you do then?
“Hi so-and-so. I love you, and I want you to know I’m here for you if you ever want to talk about things.” Boom! That was great. You obviously care, but you also respect boundaries. Good for you!
Now there is one very important caveat to all of this. If you think someone is about to hurt themselves or others, or is otherwise in crisis – then you should talk to that person, or hell, call the police if you think something bad is going to happen imminently. But it has to be pretty extreme.
And lastly, for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t go telling a bunch of people you heard so-and-so has a mental illness behind their back. Whatever your intention is, it’s likely to be perceived by the person actually suffering as malicious and cruel, and you’re probably going to jeopardize the very existence of a relationship with that person. This can be very traumatizing for the person suffering from mental illness, and can be detrimental to their treatment and recovery.
#2 – I’m Still Me
Ask me to describe myself and “Bipolar” does not make the top 10 list of adjectives. I am not my mental illness.
This one is a little tricky, since you’ll often hear someone say I am depressed, or I am bipolar. The language usage suggests that that person is that mental illness. But really, they’re not.
And really, this is laughable on the face of it. Think about it:
Someone has cancer. Are they cancer?
You have the flu. Are you the flu?
You have a rash. Are you a rash?
No. That all sounds ridiculous. So yes, you’ll see me write things like I am bipolar but really, that’s just lazy English.
The point is, I’m still the same me I was before you knew I had a mental illness. You just know a little bit more about me now. But don’t worry, I’m still here!
Confused? Don’t over think it. Just look at this definitely-not-altered GIF, smile, and move on.
#3 – I’m Still Capable
A big reason why the mental health stigma is so real is that people fear that they’ll be perceived as less competent if it’s known they have a mental illness. But if you’ve known someone to be competent and capable of sound decision making, then the knowledge that they have a mental illness shouldn’t change that.
I have bipolar 2 disorder. I make decisions every day. I have a family that I care for. I take myself to work every day; in other words, I am completely capable of taking care of myself and living a normal life.
Do you want to know the biggest reason I don’t share my mental illness with people in my personal life? I’m afraid I’ll lose my job – and if I don’t lose my job I’m afraid I’ll never be considered for another promotion again. I’m afraid some jerk will think I have a defect that compromises my ability to make sound decisions. This isn’t true, but I know a lot of people think that way.
Now I am not trying to trivialize mental illness in any way. Many people do struggle with very real mental health issues that diminish their functionality in different ways, and these people do require help.
But if you’ve known so-and-so forever, they’ve always been highly capable, and they confide in you that they have major depressive disorder, I hope your opinion of that person does not diminish. They’re still as intelligent as they were before. Actually, there’s some evidence to suggest intelligent people are more at risk for mental illness.
My opinion of you wouldn’t be diminished if I learned you have cancer. I’d want to help you in any way I could, and I hope that’s your reaction upon hearing a friend or loved one is suffering from a mental illness.
#4 – Help Helps
You may have just learned that someone you love has a mental illness. You may be filled with an overwhelming desire to help, and that’s good! But what do you do? Do you smother them with kindness? Or do you stay aloof and distant? You’re just doing what the nice guy on the internet told you to, and respecting boundaries.
How about you listen to them, and ask what you can do to help? If the answer is nothing, then do nothing. If the answer is listen to them complain about their day, then do that. If the answer is get a supersized order of fries from McDonald’s then…
Now sometimes you shouldn’t just wait around and wait for someone to ask for help. Unfortunately, people who are suffering with depression often can’t see what will help them… even if it’s really obvious. And sometimes someone will say they don’t need anything when really it’s obvious that they do. This requires some judgement on your part, and has to be supported by your knowledge of, and relationship with that particular person.
So if there’s something really obvious that would help, like stepping on the gas when you’re being chased by a gigantic dinosaur, then go ahead and do that thing:
Just remember that a little bit of kindness can go a really long way with someone suffering from depression or bipolar disorder.
#5 – I Want You To Take Care of Yourself
So I’ve been talking about all the things you can do to help that person in your life who is suffering from a mental illness, but please don’t forget to take care of yourself too.
The person suffering wants you to be well too. They don’t want to see you suffer, or even develop a mental illness of your own due to the stress of care giving.
Make time for yourself as well. Make sure you set your own boundaries. Don’t forget to help yourself too. Don’t be a hero.
So that’s all for now. That should be enough to get you started at least. There’s a lot more than just that which I’ll share in later articles, but my mania-brain has lost interest in writing, and suddenly I have an uncontrollable urge to watch Jurassic Park.
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