I know there are tons of first person accounts online of living with different types of mental illnesses. I believe I’ve even spoken about my own struggles somewhat on this blog too. But since it’s something that has come up again in my life I’d like to discuss it more explicitly.
Living with mental illness is really hard.
So, my official diagnosis is major recurrent depression with suicidal ideation. I think about killing myself on a near daily basis. Anytime something goes wrong – anything – I’m fantasizing about blowing my brains out. It’s an obsessive thought. It doesn’t really bother me because I’ve been “obsessed” with death since childhood. The first time I tried to commit suicide was 12 years old by slicing my wrist open with scissors. The wound was not even close to being fatal, but it was the start of a very negative self soothing strategy. I still remember every detail around that event: sitting on the beige carpet by the foot of my bed hating the abuse I was undergoing on a daily basis and feeling so alone. The adults who were supposed to protect me didn’t and after the wound was discovered I was told to not tell people what I had done. That would also start a pattern of hiding my emotions because I was afraid nobody could understand or they would be frightened by the intensity of my emotions.
This is how stigma starts.
Now, I am a psychology student so I put the responsibility of being healthy on myself. That if I am to help others, I have to walk the walk. That is how I keep myself in check. I like to think I am a pretty good role model – I am able to hold down a job, pay bills, keep a pet alive, and counsel others. I am not scared or freaked out by the people I counsel sharing dark emotional content with me because I’m used to it from myself. The advice I give to my peers usually is compassionate but focused on accountability to the plan they’ve created with their clinicians and/or helping them come up with coping strategies that are not harmful and help to reteach people what appropriate self-soothing should look and feel like.
But just because I can and do counsel as a peer doesn’t mean I am “cured”. Not by a long shot. I still have inappropriate emotional reactions sometimes. I don’t reach out when I should sometimes. And most of the time like many others, I suffer alone and in silence. The worst of my craziness is usually hidden because I’m embarrassed and afraid. I’ve had well meaning loved ones try to help but because they also don’t know how to effectively communicate fail. So with that in mind I’d like to share some great ways to assist others in speaking to those who are mentally ill…
- Listen more than you speak – This is HUGE. Most of us when we are engaged in social contact are mainly just waiting to speak instead of focused on the content we are hearing. Focus on the content. Chances are, the troubling feelings this person is sharing with you is the first time they are saying them to another person and they are fearful of judgement or of scaring you away. Just listen, express empathy as needed and tell people you love them.
- “Shoulding” – Don’t tell someone with a mental illness what they “should” do. Are you a licensed therapist? Have you ever had these same thoughts? Most likely no. So don’t tell someone that if they just thought more positive thoughts they would be ok. Because that is not factually accurate and more obviously, it is hurtful to the person you are saying it to. That is blaming the victim for the disease. Would you tell someone with lung cancer if they just didn’t smoke all those years they wouldn’t now have cancer? Of course not. Mental illness is no different.
- Using “positive” and “negative” polarity – This is so ingrained in our culture and usually I hear this expressed in my peers that I counsel. Telling someone (or telling yourself) that these thoughts or actions are either “negative” or “positive” puts judgement on the thoughts/actions. I like to tell people that what they are experiencing is neither positive or negative since that is a concept that humans have constructed, it’s not real. They are simply experiencing what they are experiencing and I encourage people to look at it from a more neutral perspective to see what they can learn from their own personal experiences and how they can grow from it and how it makes them feel. Self acceptance where ever you are at right now is important. You won’t be there forever. That can sound hopeful or it can sound foreboding , see? But that is the point of “positive” or “negative” social constructs…they are subject to interpretation and interpretation is incredibly subjective.
- Offer compassionate support – So often the mentally ill feel like if they reach out for help their hand will be slapped and they’ll regret the ask. Be as compassionate as you can. How do you offer compassion? It is as easy as saying things like “I don’t understand what you’re experiencing but I’m willing to learn” or inviting someone out socially that you think is having a hard time. Telling people you love them for no reason is also pretty big. How often do we tell people we love them? It usually is reserved for important events, cards, or mindless repetition (i.e. the married couple that just murmurs “love you” as they are walking out the door). Telling someone you love them costs you nothing and in return it might just save someones life.
- Encourage trust and ownership – Most mentally ill people have issues with their clinicians. I literally am the only person with a diagnosed mental illness that prefers and trusts clinicians more than I trust lay persons in my life. But clinicians really are the key to getting better. I think it’s important to gently stress to someone that is struggling that partnering with a clinician they feel comfortable with and can trust is really important. If they don’t like and/or trust their clinician empower them to find one they do. Let them know they have control in this fashion. They are not children and clinicians are not parental figures. They are adults that have an illness and like any other illness, benefit from working with a specialist. Encourage your loved one to take ownership and pride in their struggle because it is incredibly hard. They can utilize their struggles to help others by becoming a peer counselor or in other ways that feel right to them. Our experiences deepen our complexity but they in no way define who we are.
All in all, we need to focus more on understanding and education I feel. The holidays can be really difficult for some people, including those without mental health issues. So let’s all just try being a little more understanding and loving right now. If you know someone will be alone, try asking them over for dinner. Give out hugs amply. You’re not just the giver, you’re also the receiver and more love given means more love received.