I have heard mental illness described as a monster. A monster who some days hides in your closet and other days is sitting on your chest while you lay in bed, unable to move. This monster is unpredictable and doesn’t follow any schedule. She wrecks plans with friends and family. She wrecks projects at work. The monster is a jerk.
In this month of mental health awareness, I am going to talk about what one human can do for another. How do we help keep the monster at bay?
One of the most important things we can do for each other is to listen. When someone is experiencing mental health issues, we want to fix it. A friend tells you they’re depressed, and you give them the great advice to watch YouTube videos of puppies. That’s not how it works. If a friend shares that they are struggling, just listen.
And let’s be clear, don’t pretend to listen. Really listen. How many times in a day are you in a conversation with someone and you barely hear what they are saying because you are planning what you will say next? You are so ready with your rebuttal or a solution, you miss half the conversation. Listen instead and take in what they are saying to you. People need to feel heard.
Ask how they are “really” doing?
“How are you really doing?” This question goes well when we follow the last advice of listening. Ask how your friend is doing and don’t accept “fine” as an answer. I encourage you to ask someone how they are doing twice. The first time, you will get the pat answer. The second time look them in the eye, ask, and then, you guessed it, listen.
Give them space, but stay close
Sometimes people who are struggling with mental illness want to talk about their struggles. Sometimes, they don’t. Be okay with them not wanting to talk. You have no idea what they need to get through the day. It might be that they need to focus on something else. Don’t think you know best. After you have offered to listen, you may need to sit with them without any conversation. There have been a few times in my life where I didn’t lend any advice to a friend’s problems. I didn’t have a solution. Instead, I sat with them quietly, so they knew I had their back. I was helping to keep the monster away. Simple and quiet, but it speaks volumes to the person.
I liken this to the poem, Footprints, which talks about a single set of footprints on the road of someone’s life. The person thought God had abandoned them during a tough time but really, God was carrying them along. Sometimes we also need to “carry” the other person while they are going through things.
You may have not had their exact experience. You may not understand what they are going through. Mental illness is individualized to each person experiencing it. But always try to show empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of someone else. You may not understand their monster. But you can say, “I have never gone through this, but I am here to support you in whatever way you need.” Again, simple words but with a powerful message that you are supporting them. You are there.
Friends with mental health issues will have different reactions to the advice above. They may not like some of my suggestions. They may act out when you tell them you are there for them no matter what. You may feel like they don’t want your help. You may get frustrated that they don’t do what you think they should.
Just keep sitting beside them being their friend through it all. Monsters and all.