A Guide For Friends Of The Mentally Ill
Conquering any kind of mental distress is no easy feat. There is a constant war inside your mind as you try to overcome the daily difficulties that only you face. Then, while battling yourself, there is also a constant battle between yourself and the people around you. You are faced with hurtful and ill-informed stigmas and stereotypes, gravely misunderstood by persons who never try to understand, and invalidated by persons suffering from other mental illnesses.
Facing these different struggles can become extremely tiresome and, sometimes more than anything else, lonely. Often, we choose to deal with our situations alone because we don’t feel as if anyone else can truly understand what’s going on inside our head. We’ve convinced ourselves that these are problems that no one else faces. Other times, we’ve been given strong reasons to keep it all to ourselves, if we can, because of how we see other persons react to someone else’s mental health condition. Anything from ridicule, and indifference, to misunderstanding, does not inspire confidence.
It doesn’t always have to be like this. Despite mental illnesses being a personal challenge, there is much that can be done to make the challenge more bearable. If you have a friend with a mental illness, you may not know how you can help. You may not even know that you can help.
What Is Mental Illness?
A mental illness is a health condition which affects one’s emotions, thinking and/or behaviour. Yes, they are legitimate, treatable health conditions, just as heart disease and hypertension are. There is no single representation of mental illness. It ranges from depression to autism to anxiety to schizophrenia. Every single one is valid and to be attended to as well as possible, best by a professional.
Mental Illness Is Not…
- A choice:
There are different factors that lead to someone having a mental illness and simply deciding to have it is not one of them. To be taken into consideration are social and cultural factors, as well as different aspects of the developmental process (from infanthood to adulthood). Biological factors are also important to keep in mind, as mental illnesses can be largely caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.
- A character trait:
Mental illness is not an adjective nor is it a default of your personality. As stated, it is an illness. You don’t use every opportunity to say, “I’m so cancer!” It would not only be ignorant of you to do that but also extremely insensitive. Persons actually suffering from the illness have all right to take offense when someone who is not suffering from the illness throws it around and uses it to flippantly describe their regular personality traits. It is a mockery that shows a lack of understanding or care for the serious struggles that they face every day.
Mental illness interferes with relationships, self-image, as well as professional, and educational life. It can interfere with any and every aspect of life. Majority of the time, it causes great distress, not only to those who are diagnosed with it, but also to all those who interact with them in any way. There is nothing cute, romantic, nor to idolize.
- A death sentence:
Never assume that your friend’s mental illness automatically includes suicidal thoughts. Not all persons with mental illness are suicidal; they do not come hand in hand. Be careful of how you assume and treat your friends as though they have their necks on the executioner’s block. Don’t ever write them off to be “as good as dead”. If they are, in fact, suicidal, it is important, as their friend, to bear in mind that all mental illnesses are treatable. Don’t focus on their suicidal thoughts. Focus on the fact that they’re still alive and try to help them to maintain that.
- A figment of their imagination:
Mental illness is very real. It is not something that we can just conjure through thought or simply think away. They are very real occurrences which genuinely affect behaviour and situations daily. Not because you can’t always see or identify the symptoms means that they don’t exist. They are not to be ignored nor ridiculed degraded for seeking therapy, taking medications or any other form of treatment. As mentioned before, mental illnesses are health conditions. You can’t see a heart disease but you know it exists and you will do all you can to have it treated. So, then, why wouldn’t you do the same for a mental illness?
Things We Can Do To Help As Friends Of The Mentally Ill
- Try to really understand. No one likes to be misunderstood or judged to be something that they’re not. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends about their illness, their experiences with it, and how they would like to be treated. In addition to that, information about almost everything is on the internet and in books so use them to inform yourself. It will mean a lot to your friend to see you putting out a sincere effort to understand them and their illness. Despite the fact that you may not be experiencing the same things that they experience, this will surely help your friend to feel less lonely, more comfortable around you and, in return, you will feel more comfortable around them.
- Remember that a diagnosis does not define your friend. They are the same person now as they were before you discovered their mental illness. They still have a personality and interests. Include them in conversations and outings and, speak to them as you’d speak to any other friend. Don’t treat them differently because of their illness, just as you wouldn’t want anyone to treat you as if you were a completely different person each time you caught the flu. Furthermore, there is no need to continuously mention it or attribute all their behaviour to it. They told you simply so that you could understand them better, as well as to make their daily interaction with you more comfortable. There is absolutely no need to hold them to it. Simply try to understand and keep behaving with them as you were.
- Don’t discredit their mental illness. Speaking as if their mental illness has been exaggerated or unreal can be extremely hurtful. They trusted you enough to push themselves and let you know of their situation. Respect their effort and appreciate their trust in you, Don’t invalidate their mental illness or give them any reason to now dread being around or regret confiding in you.
- Encourage them as much as you can. Encourage them to take the prescribed medications, keep appointments, and maintain healthy self-care routines. Just encourage them to keep going. In doing this, they will see that there is someone who really cares about their wellbeing. Even on days when they don’t feel like trying, they might just remember you and your hope for them and use that to fuel their progress.
- Just be a good friend. Don’t force the friendship because you feel like you have to and don’t do anything that won’t be done sincerely. All persons want is someone who wants them around and really tries to understand them and enjoy their presence.
The simple fact is that everyone needs someone. We’re all going through our fair share of difficulties in life. We are just trying to understand and help each other, which is one of the best things we could ever do. While we’re trying to help each other, it is also important to remember to take care of our own mental health. If you can’t handle something, just say no. If you are in need of professional help or even just a self-care day, go for it. Acts of kindness to yourself and to others go a long way.
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