Today’s post is a little more personal and a little more serious than many of my other postings. However, it covers a topic that I think is extremely important and rarely discussed. So many people act as though mental illness is just something to be whispered about or swept under the rug. So many people think – “Oh, it won’t happen to anyone I know” or “It’s not that big of a deal, I have a little depression and anxiety sometimes.” And while it is true that everyone probably experiences some form of depression and anxiety in their lives, severe mental illness is different and it is far more common than you think.
How do I know this? Because this past spring, my husband, who was known to everyone as the most chill, laidback, easygoing guy, suffered a complete mental breakdown and was hospitalized for three weeks.
Because of this, I learned that sometimes people don’t know what to say or do, either to you or the person with the illness. Sometimes, it can be awkward for them, because they don’t want to say the wrong thing or hurt someone’s feelings.
Thankfully, we have some of the most amazing friends and family who supported us through this and my husband is on the road to recovery. But even if you experience mental illness in a close friend or family member to a lesser degree than I did, it helps to know what to do and how to handle the tough situation.
One of my best friends, Jennifer Wood, has a masters in community counseling and was a HUGE support for me during all of it. She agreed to sit down and share with me and all of you the best way to handle loving and being there for someone who is suffering from a mental illness.
I wanted to first pose some getting to know you style questions so that you can realize how awesome Jennifer is.
What is your favorite book?
I have many favorites, so this is hard to answer – but I have to go with The Night Circus. It was a toss up between that and the All Souls Trilogy, which is, of course, a trilogy.
What is your favorite movie?
Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Favorite guilty pleasure (food-wise)?
DOUGHNUTS. (emphasis – hers)
Favorite place to vacation?
What is your favorite song on rotation on your ipod right now?
Say Hey (I Love You).
Who is your hero?
Anyone who is trying to grow and develop.
How would you describe your masters in the length of a Tweet?
Community counseling is about the person in context. Change the person and you will change the context – and vice versa.
Where do you fall in the birth order?
I’m the youngest!
What are three memories from your life that you always share?
Being bullied in elementary school by my “friends;” meeting my husband at an audition for community theater; visiting a career counselor in grad school and realizing I have more options than I thought.
What is your favorite quote?
“I am only one, but still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something I can do.” — Helen Keller
Would you call yourself a feminist?
Now that we’ve gotten to know Jennifer a little bit more, time to get serious and talk with her about how best to handle loving someone with a mental illness. Here are the 7 best methods for how to handle mental illness in those you love:
(1) If you only had one minute to tell someone of your advice to help a friend or family member with mental illness, what would you say?
Find resources for support, educate yourself, and remember – this disease is not the sum total of who your loved one is.
(2) When do you know that someone’s mental illness is something that they should seek professional help for? How should a friend or family member broach that topic?
When the mental illness affects the person’s daily life in a way that they perceive as negative, they should seek help. This perception can include negative impact to basic life activities (feeding, hygiene, personal care), or work activities, or interpersonal activities.
The best way for a friend or family member to broach their concerns is as observations.
“I notice that you are not responding to stress in the same ways as you used to. You used to be able to blow it off, but now you drink a six pack of beer every night. I’m concerned.”
“It seems like this breakup has really hit you hard. You have been sleeping more and more, and cancelling on your plans to meet up with friends. I miss you. Can we talk about this?”
(3) What are some of the best things you can do for someone suffering from anxiety or depression?
Always, the best response is: “How can I help?” Let each person guide you, because everyone is different and may need a different approach.
If someone needs help thinking of coping skills, you can do some research with legitimate sites (try NAMI) to help them brainstorm and try new things.
(4) How important is it to take care of yourself when you are with (romantically or familial or friend) someone who suffers from a mental illness?
It is CRUCIAL. You absolutely need your own coping, self-care practices, and separate support – both for the mental illness, and for yourself to escape your role as “friend/family member of someone with mental illness,” if only for a little while.
(5) How do you take care of yourself when loving someone who is suffering from a mental illness?
You must eat well, get plenty of sleep, and take care of your emotions. You must separate your self from your loved one: by which I mean, understand that you are not them.
Their needs, and their responses, may be different than yours.
Do not impose your self on them; and, do not allow them to be codependent on you.
Find a good counselor to help you sort out your motivations, emotions, and responses.
(6) What is one thing you wish everyone knew about mental illness?
That it exists; that it has multiple etiologies; that it doesn’t make anyone a bad person. Sorry, that’s three things.
(7) Any other pieces of advice?
Be curious, and seek out information from multiple credible sources.
Take care of yourself.
Give yourself permission to grieve your old life, but know that people with mental illness are part of the diversity of humanity.
I am so very thankful that Jennifer took the time to let me interview her and to help me discuss the best ways to love and live with someone dealing with a mental illness. We are all fighting our own battles, but we are never truly alone. Be sure to share this post with anyone you think may benefit from it and don’t be afraid to reach out to those you love who are in need.
Until next time, my loves.