Mental illness is a tricky thing. For the person suffering from it, but also for the people around them. I’ve learned from experience that unless you’ve dealt with mental illness yourself, you’ll never truly understand what it’s like. But that doesn’t need to be a problem – you can still help, and I’m going to try to give you a few examples as to how. There’s not really a rule-book for anything as it really depends on the person, but hopefully this will give you an idea.
What to say
- Do you need to talk?
- I’m here if you need a friend.
- I may not understand what you’re going through, but I’ll never judge you.
- How can I help?
- Do you need a hug?
- No, it’s okay, we can totally hang out another time. Whenever you feel better.
What not to say
- Just get over it.
- You’re so lazy.
- Stop being so selfish.
- Have you ever tried not being depressed/anxious?
- You’re just making things up.
- Gee, I would like not working too.
(Yes, I’ve heard these before, and all of them are awful.)
It’s difficult when you can’t see someone being ill. We might be having a really bad day without you noticing a thing. Or we could look tired. Or… You know, no two mental illnesses are alike, so these “symptoms” are probably different for everyone. A very simple “how are you?” can already mean a lot. But if you’d like a few physical symptoms of anxiety (also different for everyone), there’s: increased heartrate, nausea, not making eye-contact, twitching, hyperventilating, sweating, loss of focus, staring, light-headedness, hot flashes or chills. If someone is having an anxiety attack, do not smother them. Not everyone deals with it the same way. Ask them what they need. Some space and a glass of water can usually go a long way.
Don’t get angry when we have to cancel plans last-minute. Know that we are trying, and that nobody will be more disappointed than us.
Showing up uninvited is tricky. I, for one, do not appreciate this at all, because I’m not prepared for people and interaction and it will spike my anxiety for sure. For others, say, those with depression, it can help. On a good day, you could probably get them out of the house and they’ll be really glad you did. On a bad day, you could just sit with them and watch some crappy TV or talk a bit.
Hot beverages are always appreciated. Sheldon Cooper does the right thing every once in a while.
Send cards, texts, e-mails, just let us know you’re thinking of us. We tend to get very self-absorbed and isolated in our own little world, and most of the time we don’t realise it. Please know it’s absolutely not our intention to ignore you. Reach out to us. We appreciate the thought. (Note: there’s a difference between forgetting to get in touch and blatantly ignoring people who are reaching out. Mental illness is never an excuse to be an asshole.)
Lend us movies, series, games, music you think we might like. A friend of mine lent me his DVD collection of Scrubs, which was amazing of him. Anything to get our mind off of our… well, minds.
Don’t leave. Keep inviting us to things.
Talk talk talk. Ask questions. Show interest. Be supportive. Tell us about the outside world – show us what we’re missing. (But not in an in-your-face kind of way.) I always really appreciate it when friends ask me questions, because it tells me they’re trying to understand. I’m really open about my anxiety and depression and will generally answer everything honestly.
And that’s sort of the gist, really. I completely understand if this is confusing, because it really depends on the person in question. The best thing you can do is ask them. The fact that you’re showing interest is already amazing, and most of the time they’ll happily explain things.