This is the first of the Being There series–a guide on how to be a good support system for people with mental health needs, according to people who have mental health needs themselves.
Responses came from 11 people, four of whom have chosen to remain anonymous. The diagnoses vary, but most of them said that mental illness affects their lives a great deal. Some information also came from loved ones of people with mental health needs.
Support system interviewees–friends, relatives and significant others of a person with mental illness–mentioned that signs of their loved one’s mental illness include: moodiness, reactiveness, being MIA on plans and events, lashing out, and shutting themselves off from communicating.
It makes so much more sense when you think about what the person is going through with his or her illness. Of course, in order to be there for someone with mental health needs, you’d have to have at least some understanding of what it’s like.
Here are their experiences, in their own words:
Mental illness can affect every facet of one’s life. The mind is, after all, the window through which we experience the world. Mental illness can affect everything–from your energy levels, to your capacity to do daily tasks. “It has affected my daily moods, my efficiency, the ways I interact with others, the way I view myself, and my will to wake up and live everyday,” says Alex, who suffers from moderately severe clinical depression.
An anon with social anxiety and depression mentioned that activities a “normal person” could otherwise do would leave them paralyzed, “like social interactions, going to offices, walking past people, taking a bath, waking up, going to bed.”
BUT it’s different for everybody. Even within the same disorders, the severity and symptoms can vary greatly. Mental illness and the road to recovery are not linear. It could feel controlled for a bit, and then relapse full-force when triggered. It could stay for years, or come and go. Aly, who has been diagnosed with bipolar and generalized anxiety disorders, says that “there are days when it’s manageable, but there are also very bad days when I cannot function at all.”
Mental illness can change (or distort) the dynamic of past relationships, or prevent you from forging new ones. A common sentiment is that mental illness has an effect on personal relationships. “[Mental illness] allows my insecurities to dictate my self-worth, so I always fight with the important people in my life,” says Madel, who has been diagnosed with depression. Sara, a med school student with bipolar II and generalized anxiety disorder, has times when she finds otherwise mundane activities to be difficult, especially social interaction “because I keep overthinking and catastrophizing in my head.”
It is extremely important that one does not go through it alone.
Giving and receiving social support is ingrained in us as a basic need. Having a network of healthy, supportive relationships can help one cope better with mental illness. Having to be accountable to a support system can help people stop maladaptive coping mechanisms like self-harm. Aly mentions, “Socializing sometimes makes me feel like I don’t have to resort to extreme measures to make myself feel better.”
An anon who has clinical depression mentions that “having a support system is incredibly important because although ‘fixing yourself’ starts from within, having a support system outside of you motivates you to seek help and get cured.”
There isn’t one right way to be a good support system for someone with mental illness. But these are tips and insights from individuals with mental health needs themselves. Hopefully they could be of use to your situation, as well.
Again, make a genuine effort to understand what they are going through. Those who did not feel satisfied with certain support systems noted that there was a lack of effort in understanding the mental illness. People who do not completely understand mental illness tend to say ignorant things (just “be happy” or “think positive”), trivializing and perpetuating the stigma. On the other hand, those who felt the most satisfied with their support systems mentioned that they had firsthand experience with mental illness as well. Paolo, who has been diagnosed with ADHD and depression, says that he has a great support system he can relate to because they have gone through it themselves.
You don’t have to go through mental illness to empathize–earnestly doing some research on the topic can go a long way. Aly adds, “Knowing triggers, identifying signs and knowing how to handle me during and after [my episodes] would help better.”
Treat mental illness seriously, but do not make your relationship all about the illness. Agnes, who has been diagnosed with depression, says, “Never minimize our pain. There will be times that even just a simple thing or word can be a trigger and will make us cry the rest of the day.” Amber also wishes that mental illness were less trivialized, as it is life-threatening, but notes that there should be a balance: “Don’t always bring up my mental health needs.” Be attentive to your friend/loved one exhibiting warning signs, but don’t make your relationship entirely about the mental illness–it is neither supportive or fair to either party, as a support system interviewee notes. Their mental illness does not define them as a person.
Listen thoughtfully, and not just for the sake of responding. We sometimes fall into the habit of halfheartedly listening to others while thinking about what our reply will be. Listening helps so much more than advice-giving or offering solutions. Agnes says, “a lot of times, we don’t even expect you to give any advice or any help suggestion. We just need someone to listen and to be there.” But of course, it’s fine if you’re asked specifically for your take on a situation. As Brené Brown said: “Rarely can a response make something better—what makes something better is connection.”
An anon diagnosed with anxiety mentions, “When I feel anxious, I need to converse with someone to keep my head straight.” Sara adds, “having people to lean on and vent to makes the heavy burden lighter. Just having someone I can easily reach out to when I feel down feels like a life line.”
Keep your word. Also, be mindful of your wording. Be upfront about your promises and limitations. Make sure to stick by them. It may backfire if you tell your friend/loved one that you will answer their calls 24/7, when you can’t actually commit to answering the phone all the time. Madel mentions that it’s better to say “I won’t always be there for you, but…”, rather than “I will always be there for you no matter what,” because it’s more honest about your limitations. Especially if your friend/loved one has the tendency to ruminate–Sara gives an example: “Like, instead of saying ‘what do you need?’, say ‘what can I do for you to help?’ It shifts the focus on what will make the person feel at ease at the moment, without the added pressure of coming up with an explanation.”
Check up on them once in a while. A number of respondents mentioned that it makes them feel validated to be checked up on, even if the relationship with their friend/loved one is no longer as close as before. “A small emoji comment or a ‘Hi’ or ‘You okay?’ goes a long, long way,” says an anon who has been diagnosed with anxiety.
Your support is far from unnoticed. The fact that you’re reading a guide on how to be there for them shows that you care.
Paolo says that the support and comfort he gets from his friends without mental illness also helps him a great deal. “While they do not exactly understand its effects, they help me deal with the consequences.”
Agnes also manages to get by with a little help from her friends, family, and mental healthcare professionals: “I thought I just couldn’t live my life any longer because everything became too tiring. But my closest friends understand me and never tire of taking care of me when things get too heavy… They’ve been very helpful to me. I couldn’t imagine what hell it would be like if they haven’t been there.”
Madel is thankful for the patience and support she gets from her family and significant other: “They are always patient with me, and they always remind me that they are there for me and that I am important.”
Despite all the ruminations and cognitive distortions Alex faces while going through depression, her support system–family, friends, significant other and mental healthcare professional–reminds her that mental illness is a dirty liar: “My depression constantly makes me feel like I am shit. It convinces me that I am worthless, ugly, and a generally terrible person. My support system assures me that I am not.” 💌
For external resources on how to be a good support system, this National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) infographic is a good place to start.
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