Perhaps your friend, relative or someone else you know is having an episode of mental illness. Mental illness affects 1 in 4 people in the course of a year. Chances are that you know someone who is, or has been mentally ill. So what do you do when you find out?
Firstly, it is really, really hard to let people know you have a mental health problem. There are loads of myths about “madness” and how it can make people react. These range from the “mentally ill people are violent and dangerous” to “mentally ill people are just weak and making it up, they need to pull themselves together.” Mental illness is serious, affecting the lives of so many people, it is not something people say they have for a laugh, nor does it generally make people violent. It can be frightening and distressing and the stigma that exists about mental health problems can make things so much worse.
Here are my tips for what I would like others to do if they find out I am ill.
- Find out about mental ill-health. Go on websites like Time to Change, Rethink or Mind and find information about the different types of mental illness. Obviously this will be most useful if you know what the person is suffering with, but it is valuable nonetheless. In fact, even if you don’t know (or don’t think you know) anyone who is mentally ill, these are still good resources to read to find out more about them. The Time to Change website has personal stories of people with all types of mental health problem, and the others less personal information but accurate information about different types of mental illness.
- Pray. As a Christian, I believe in the power of prayer, and I believe that praying for and with someone who is ill is really important. They may not be healed, or healed immediately of their illness, but that is not to say that prayer is ineffectual. Praying not just for healing but for strength, comfort and so on is something I do. You’re also letting the person know you care. A word of warning though, if the person is not Christian they may not want you to pray over them, they may find that embarrassing or think you are saying that they must get better immediately and not understanding that mental illness generally doesn’t work like that. Be careful, and don’t force someone to listen to you praying for them if they do not want to. Of course, there is absolutely nothing to stop you praying for them yourself, just be aware they may not want you to do so in front of them. Please also resist the temptation to say “I’ve prayed, it’ll be all better now” and then be disappointed or annoyed if the person doesn’t seem to get better. Some people end up blaming the ill person if they fail to be healed – which is incredibly damaging and an awful thing to do if someone is unwell.
- Send a card. I was reading on Time to Change that Trisha Goddard (the talk-show host) had said “there is no get well card with mental illness.” I was struck by how true that is – if I broke a leg, my friends would all send me get well soon cards, but when I have been laid low with depression, not a thing. It is not that they are not my friends, but it shows how our society views mental illness as not being similar to physical illness. Sending a nice card, saying you are thinking about them and hope they get better soon, is a lovely reminder that they are cared for – and that goes for work colleagues as well. I can’t tell you how much I would have appreciated getting a get well card when I was off sick from work, instead of dead silence as though I had something shameful wrong with me.
- Listen. This is such an important thing I probably should have put it up at the top! If – and only if – your loved one/colleague wants to talk about what they are feeling and going through, listening is really important. Don’t worry about not knowing what to say – the fact that you are letting them talk, letting them tell you about their problems is good. It’s a bit like bursting a spot – getting the bad stuff out. Sorry about the disgusting analogy but that is how talking to someone who doesn’t judge me, who doesn’t tell me off feels like to me. Be aware though that some things will be distressing to you – I have talked to good friends about my urges to self harm, and my suicidal thoughts before and I recognise that that must be hard to listen to. However the fact that they did listen meant a lot to me, especially one friend, who listened quite calmly to me and helped me think, without being visibly emotional. Not to say your emotions would be wrong, it is just something that, on top of my own distress, would make things a bit worse.
- Help practically. When I am ill I find it very hard to do simple, everyday things like cooking, shopping, doing the washing up, the laundry, that sort of thing. At its worst I ended up living in a dirty, untidy house with no clean clothes and eating only chocolate. Obviously, that is not great for my mental health either, and I remember in my worst episode a friend washing my clothes and making me cups of coffee, simple things that made a difference (although I don’t know if I managed to thank her at the time.)
- Medication. Most people, I would say, get at least some help from medication. Most people feel conflicted about that medication. Partly this is because society makes out that, say, anti-depressants are a weakness, that we should be able to manage without – as the Daily Mail calls them, “happy pills” which it suggests are addictive. The other reason is that they are not a magic solution – I have been depressed while on anti-depressants and it unfortunately comes down to a matter of faith that I believe that that depression would have been worse without them. As a consequence of this, people come off medication and end up in a crisis. Encouraging people to take medication and counteracting the whole “you don’t need medication” meme that is in our culture would be helpful.
- Doctors. On a related note encouraging your loved one to see a doctor, to talk fully and frankly to a psychiatrist, therapist or GP is good. We all have our differences with doctors from time to time, but they are there to help, and they really can help – but only if we give them honest information. You might ring before a doctors appointment to make sure they are awake, or take them to the doctor if they would like you to.
- See me. My final point today is that, even in the midst of a mental health crisis, I am still me, and I am not my illness. It is easy to see the illness before the person when the person is distressed, but it is important to remember that I am not a collection of symptoms, I am still there underneath, and I may even be able to break through at times. I have a friend who is a big joker who didn’t know whether to make jokes in front of me when I was depressed – but I really appreciated those jokes, even when I couldn’t laugh very much. Be yourself, you are not the person’s doctor and you don’t need to act like a psychiatrist, just bear with me in my troubled time and remember that I am the friend you know, even when I am ill.
Those are a few suggestions – your mileage may vary, of course, but these are things I find helpful. If you have any other suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment!