10 things people with mental illness want you to know

How to be supportive even when you can’t relate

It’s Mental Health Month and, as an individual with a mental illness, and spouse of someone with a mental illness, I know the value of awareness.

You probably already know that the people around you can have a profound effect on your wellbeing. Many of us have a support system, or even just one friend, who has helped us express our feelings and make sense of our own head.

But there are also many detrimental people who, even when they have good intentions, make us feel worse.

This is a problem because mental illness is already heavily stigmatized, and sufferers don’t need another reason to feel like there’s something wrong with them. So here are some notes about some of the things you should be aware of when speaking with someone with a mental illness, so you can avoid being one of those people who make us feel marginalized.

1. It’s not all in our head

There’s nothing more infuriating than being told you’re just overthinking. I spent most of my childhood and early adult years being told I was just “shy” and needed to “break out of my shell.” For one, I believed people who said it. Maybe if I could just make friends and make myself more confident, I’d be unstoppable. But my social fears and anxiety didn’t come from a behavioral issue, they came from a chemical imbalance in my brain. Secondly, those comments made me feel worse about myself. I’d think there must be something wrong with me if I couldn’t snap out of it and be ‘normal.’

2. We don’t want to be treated differently

Having a mental illness is sort of like being in a toxic relationship. It’s not good for your health, it causes internal strain and conflict, but in the end, you’re the same person who just needs a friend — not advice on how to fix it.

If a friend opens up to you about their mental illness, they’re saying they feel comfortable with you. That person has probably been dealing with their illness for a long time, so this is their normal. They just want to be understood.

3. Don’t look for a ‘solution’ for us

Here’s a partial laundry list of the solutions I’ve received for my depression and anxiety:

  • Exercise more
  • Go outside
  • See a therapist
  • Do yoga
  • Meditate
  • Take Vitamin D supplements
  • Going off my medications (Still extremely confused by this)

Whether or not I’ve tried all these things is not the issue. I’ve heard them a hundred times, repeated not only to me but also to others close to me. These ‘solutions’ take time and money, not to mention energy we don’t have (see #4). So, hearing it all over again from a friend can be hurtful.

Also, we’ve likely tried most of the ‘solutions’ society has to offer. If we thought we could cure ourselves by something as simple as yoga, we would have done that before we even thought about breaching this vulnerable topic.

4. We’re f*cking exhausted

I have a very physical response to my anxiety. My heart races and my chest feels heavy, my senses are on high-alert (survival mode, bitches), and it feels hard to breathe. Sometimes we’re good at hiding it, but most people with mental illness feel some sort of physical effects like this.

Not to mention that we are drained from trying to mask and manage our emotions. Being out in public with social anxiety can make you hyper-aware of how you look, how you move, etc. Trying to micro-manage every response to get yourself to be ‘normal’ is work.

Many of us fight through exhaustion at school and work, even wondering why we’re so tired while our hands are sweaty and shaking.

Just keep in mind the amount of energy it takes for us to be there for you — and the amount of energy we don’t have for all the extra ‘solutions’ that are supposed to make our illness better.

5. Our medication choice is our business

There have been a handful of people in my life who have suggested that medication is part of the problem, and I’m sick of defending this personal health choice. We don’t tell someone with diabetes that maybe they should try going without insulin and just get more sunlight and yoga. We don’t tell someone with a broken leg to stop taking pain medication and just look on the bright side. Why does anyone feel taking medication is worse than my mental illness than it would be for either of these situations?

True, these overpriced medications mess with my weight, hormones, anxiety, moods, and energy levels. If I could stop taking them and still live a normal life, I would.

My point being: You don’t understand the struggle that person is going through. We shouldn’t be shamed for taking them to treat our illness.

On a similar note, we also shouldn’t be pushed into taking medications if we don’t want to. That’s a different can of worms, but the point remains that at the end of the day, it is our health and our business.

6. Your ‘tough love’ only pushes us away

“You just need to suck it up,” and “Welcome to the real world,” are examples of tough love — anything that suggests that you are learning a normal life lesson, but are being too sensitive about it.

People with mental illness are tough. We struggle daily to hold themselves together through trials our body is putting us through.

Most of us have probably had these thoughts already. Before figuring out we truly have an illness, most of us think we are just weak. We’ve thought we weren’t able to deal with normal things because we just needed to toughen up. And we know that thinking doesn’t help.

‘Tough love’ says that you can’t be bothered to care about my problems. It says ‘I don’t understand and I don’t want to try.’ Needless to say, it’s the opposite of helpful.

7. If we cancel plans, it’s not your fault. But it’s not always ours either.

Socializing takes a lot of mental energy, and people suffering from mental illness have less of it to give. Many of us want to participate in social events, but don’t feel up to it when the time comes.

I have many anxious friends (including my mother) who want to go to an event but often cancel last minute. Even when I’m the one being canceled on, I try to be mindful that some people are triggered by different circumstances, and it’s probably not a reflection on me, nor is it necessarily because they don’t care.

8. We don’t have to look sad or distressed to be feeling the effects

We’re great at putting on a happy face. Looking upset draws unwanted attention, so we pretend everything is fine. If I cancel today, don’t say, “But you were fine yesterday!” Chances are I was just better at hiding it yesterday. Mental illness doesn’t just go away. We have good days and bad days, good weeks, bad months, etc. It’s a long-game struggle that can affect us at random times.

On the flip side, if we have unusual behavior, you don’t have to point it out. Most people with mental illness are perfectly aware that their fears, habits, and obsessions don’t make sense. It is possible to be suffering from thoughts that come unbidden.

It’s unnecessary to point out someone’s behavior, and it only makes that person feel that you want them to ‘act normal’ for your comfort.

9. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms

When I was younger, I thought other people were faking it when they said they had anxiety. Seriously. Because I had it, and their symptoms were different than mine, I thought they weren’t sincere. They couldn’t possibly understand what I was going through, and it was insulting to think they did.

Thankfully, since then, people have been more open to talking about mental illness and how it affects them. Mental illness is very common, especially in today’s fast-paced, high-stress, hyper-productive world. Our brains were never built to keep up with what society expects of us.

That being said, I’ve now heard so many stories of women and men who struggle with anxiety and depression with different symptoms. Some people sweat a lot. Some have a racing heartbeat, shaking hands, dizziness, disassociation, overthinking, hyper-awareness, brain fog, or even become angry. Some people have a hard time opening up. Some put on a happy face and pretend nothing is wrong.

There are no ‘wrong’ symptoms because our bodies all react differently under stress. And that’s OK.

So, if you have a relative with anxiety and you’re talking to a friend about his, please don’t compare the two. Don’t tell your friend what works for your relative. Don’t assume you understand what he’s going through because you know someone else with a similar illness.

10. Be supportive, even when you don’t understand

You can help by listening and believing your friends who say they’re struggling with mental illness. Most of the time, we just need someone to listen. We understand that it can be hard for you to wrap your head around or truly understand the situation we’re in, but that’s OK.

The best thing to do is ask what you can do for that person if they’re feeling anxious, depressed, manic, etc. While listening is always a good thing, different people have different needs for their illness. Especially for a best friend or significant other, ask if there’s anything you need to know or do to better take care of them when they’re struggling.

We would rather you listen and ask questions than pretend to understand what we’re going through. Keep an open mind, and don’t forget we are normal humans whose brains are just trying to comprehend the world around them differently than yours does.

Feminism and culture, self-love, health/fitness, professional thought machine

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