Mental illness is tough. It is different for every person. If you have a mental illness or know someone that does, you know that there are good days and bad and that sometimes it is hard to know how to help. As a friend or family member, you want to be there and help, be a support system, but sometimes that can be tough. And it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some steps you can take to be a good friend, family member, and community member to those suffering from a mental illness.
- Get Informed: Like anything in life, the more you know the more you understand. There are blog posts (just like this one!) giving advice or first person experiences with mental illness. You can find infographics with statistics and tidbits of information. It can be as simple as following a mental health advocate on social media or searching through Pinterest. Find something that works best for you, be it reading, watching a documentary, or scrolling social media.
- Don’t Walk on Eggshells: When I was first diagnosed, as an adult, I felt like some people walked on eggshells around me, think I was going to crack at any moment. I wasn’t. And it was awkward because I could tell people wouldn’t be honest or try to hide the truth about things. For me to get overwhelmed to the point of unbearable, can take a lot, and I know enough to remove myself from situations before I have a panic attack. Don’t think that they are fragile or about to break, it is probably the exact opposite. People with mental illness are some of the toughest people I know because they fight a silent battle every day.
- Know Their Triggers: My mental illness stemmed from me getting hit by a truck while I was walking across a street. So, for me, a car getting to close to me, something speeding by me or taking me by surprise, or watching something get hit by a car (be it in real life or a movie or tv show) is almost an instant trigger for a panic attack. My friends know that. So when I am with them we don’t J-walk and they always stick close by if there might be a stressful situation at hand. They don’t run and jump on me from behind or throw things without me knowing about it. All little things, but actions that make me blessed to have them.
- Respect Their Bad Days: There are always good days and bad days. Sometimes on a bad day they might cancel plans last minute or not really want to talk. Give them a bit of a break. I know when I cancel plans, I feel guilty and ashamed, even if it was the right choice for my health.
- Make Sure They Live Their Life: This might be a bit contradictory to number 4 but if you know your friend or family member well enough, then you will know the difference between respecting their bad days and giving them small pushes. I went through a very bad patch last winter. I basically didn’t talk to anyone and never left my house. After awhile my friends and family decided enough was enough. Some would just show up at my house, they knew I never left. We would watch a movie or read in silence. Sometimes we would make dinner or play darts in my basement. Then they would make me sit outside and talk or walk Luna. And slowly I stopped having panic attacks as I left the house. They respected my needs but gave me the little pushes I needed.
- Ask Questions: This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give. If you don’t know something like what their triggers are or how a panic attack feels, just ask! It isn’t always the easiest topic to talk about, but if you don’t ask you will never know. I have actually had people ask me those questions and many more.
Always remember that being a kind and loving friend is the most important thing. Being supportive and caring goes a long way.