It’s a well-documented fact that I suffer from anxiety and occasional episodes of depression. I used to find that hard to say, but thanks to the bravery of so many bloggers, celebrities, writers, all-round amazing human beings, their inspirational work has reduced (but unfortunately not entirely eliminated) the stigma around mental health issues.
While I live very well with my anxiety, it is still very much a part of my character. Years of talking therapy, CBT and a lot of hard work have made it more like an irritating itch that I live with. I’ve learned that an episode will pass, and that the stories my panicked brain can conjure up are mostly fiction. But most importantly, through the well-meaning attempts of others, I’ve learned quite a few things not to say to someone suffering from a mental illness. Here are some of them:
Being depressed or anxious can prevent you from being able to enjoy the beauty in life
Cheer up / chin up / snap out of it / don’t be so negative
Oh OK then, thanks. It’s that easy. People who don’t suffer from a mental illness don’t necessarily understand that it’s not a matter of just thinking positively. If it was as easy as flicking a light switch in your brain, there would be no problem in the first place. With depression, half the battle is that you just can’t enjoy things, no matter how badly you want to. Being told to cheer up is as helpful as being ordered to stop bleeding, or stop being diabetic, or stop having a heart condition. With anxiety, half the battle is that you ruminate, going round and round in your head and inventing or exacerbating calamities. Once you’ve started, stopping is a major uphill struggle.
Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.
You just need to go for a walk / change your diet / hang out with friends
Most people who live with a mental health problem of any kind know their patterns well. It’s not that these things wouldn’t cheer up an ordinary person who was just feeling a bit blue, but as I said before it just doesn’t work that way. A depressive episode leaves you devoid of the ability to enjoy anything. An episode of anxiety simply makes you too anxious. For me, hanging out with friends in the midst of an anxiety episode is the worst thing I could possibly do, as my anxiety is mainly social. There are some things that legitimately help, but your depressed or anxious loved one probably already knows about it and either found it doesn’t work for them or just can’t.
Treat mental illness with love, not judgement
Talk to me when you’ve calmed down / you’re being hysterical / you’re being dramatic / you’re attention seeking / it’s all in your head / you’re being ridiculous
How to make someone feel like there’s nobody on the planet that cares about them in one thoughtless sentence. How to make someone feel so hopelessly alone that any attempt to convey the depths of their despair will only be met with accusations of drama and hysteria. How can anyone be expected to seek help when the reaction from their loved ones is discomfort and disbelief? Reaching out and showing just how bad it is for you isn’t an easy thing to do – feeling rejected after doing so can be simply devastating.
Sometimes, just knowing you’re not alone can help
So how do you talk to someone who’s depressed or anxious?
Our natural human response is to want to make things better. If we can’t, we feel just as hopeless as the person going through the episode of mental illness. If you’re stuck for something helpful to say, here are a few things that might help your loved one to feel less alone.
♥ I don’t know how to make it better, but I love you and I’m listening to you.
♥ I hear that you’re feeling despair and I’m here for you.
♥ Would you like a hug? (And don’t be offended if the answer is no).
♥ I know that this will eventually pass, but I can hear that it feels really hopeless right now.
♥ You are not alone and I will support you in any way I can.
The simple message needs to be of love and acceptance, not of judgement or panic. Don’t reject someone you love who’s suffering from a mental health problem because you don’t know what to say to them, don’t tell them to call back when they feel better if they’ve had the courage amongst the hopelessness / despair / terror / panic to reach out to you. Just listen, be there, listen and give love. You can’t fix them, but you can help them to feel less alone, ostracised and abnormal, all things society tends to make sufferers feel.
I’ll share a recent very personal story. At Christmas, in front of about twenty family members, I had an anxiety attack and fled the family table. What set it off wasn’t important, but as I came back into the room, my eyes red and swollen and absolutely terrified of people’s reactions, my aunt and uncle just sat down and included me in the conversation. And just like that I felt more OK. Not fixed, but less like I wanted to run home and never show my face again. It felt so utterly normal, like I’d just had a sneezing fit instead of running from the room sobbing. It was the perfect way to treat me in that situation.
Being there for someone with a mental health issue isn’t easy, but with some compassion, care and kindness, you can help them to feel as loved as they deserve. Good luck.